Over the course of my retail career, I’ve had the opportunity to be both a merchant and an inventory planner at a global Fortune 500 company and a small Silicon Valley eCommerce startup. While these two experiences were divergent, a unifying takeaway was that strong relationships between planners and buyers (merchants) yield productive conversations and positive business results. Planners and merchants partner closely together to ensure that the right amount of the best product is purchased to support sales and margin plans. Planners are typically considered the “holders of the wallet,” providing buyers with the financial checks and balances on receipts and inventory ownership. Buyers, meanwhile, ensure that an assortment maximizes trend and satisfies the needs of customers.
From time to time, there exists a healthy level of disagreement between buyers and planners. For example, a buyer may want to invest deeper in cashmere sweaters based on marketplace trends, yet a planner may be concerned by the steep costs and markdown liability of this inventory. Or, a buyer may want to increase the number of sleeveless tank tops on the website, but a planner is concerned that this will degrade productivity and create cannibalization between styles. Despite differing perspectives, planners and buyers must engage in productive and respectful discourse in order to achieve alignment on a solution.
Here are some ways to build and nurture strong relationships with your merchant or buyer counterpart.
Set up Weekly Syncs
It is important to schedule weekly meetings with your buying counterparts in order to review key deadlines, discuss business performance, and learn about projects that your planning team and the buying team are working on. This weekly touch base is a great opportunity to have facetime with your business partners, and it ensures that schedules are clearly communicated with one another. A recurring meeting ensures a consistent touch point and ensures that a relationship is built. Weekly syncs are especially useful if you are new to an organization or if you have a new buyer counterpart.
Provide Retail Math Training
While buyers are not responsible for forecasting or analyzing retail performance to the level of detail expected of planners, it is important that buyers are highly comfortable with retail metrics. Buyers are responsible for understanding trends, customer tastes, and product details to help determine their product and category strategies. It is important that these strategies are financially sound and rooted in meaningful analyses. From my experience, financial and retail math acumen may vary amongst buyers due to training or experience; therefore, I recommend planners offer retail math training to counterparts. This ensures there is a foundational level of understanding amongst buyers and planners. This will also help drive smarter conversations and allow buyers to feel more empowered during conversation concerning forecasts, targets, and the open to buy.
Engage with the Product
While it is recommended that planners offer retail math support to their buying counterpart, I strongly encourage planners to learn about the product in greater detail outside of a product’s associated financial metrics. Visit a vendor’s show room with your buyers and learn about the important silhouettes for the upcoming season. Attend a product fitting to see how a product looks on a customer and the feedback it generates. Ask your buyer to walk through samples with you and explain the attributes of each item. These simple actions will help drive more engagement with the physical product and allow you to better understand your buyer’s point of view.
These are just a few suggestions on ways to build and nurture relationships between merchant and buyer counterparts. Though opinions may differ and priorities may conflict, it is important that planners and buyers present a unified front and can support one another during milestone meetings. Often times, disagreements arise from knowledge gaps; therefore, spend the time to teach and learn from one another. This will yield tighter relationships and, as a result, better business performance.
For more information on the metrics inventory planners need to track, and how to track them, download our Retail Math Guide. For more information on the inventory planning role and how to do it effectively at your retail business, download A Guide to Inventory Planning.