How sustainability is changing the way retail head offices’ recruit

With environmental impact firmly in the minds of their customers, retail head offices are looking for the talent to help them get greener. Head Office recruiter Sarah Hurley explains more about sustainability….

Unless you’re actively trying, ‘the green agenda’, and messages around sustainability have become impossible to avoid. From most people using a keep cup or reusable water bottle to ‘Veganuary’ shifting from a personal challenge to a permanent lifestyle for some, what was once niche has become everyday. Social consciousness is not just a marketing buzzword but rather a mainstream mindset. Retailers have made it readily accessible and easy for their customers to become part of this ‘journey’ and from this, social responsibility has become a major consideration in buying offices globally.

Fast-fashion businesses are in the spotlight, as their customers become more aware of issues around sustainability in the fashion industry, whilst still wanting to shop the latest trends. For retailers, in order to stay on top, it is imperative that they both make tangible inroads into a greener way of doing business and then convey these changes to their customers. The goal is to make it easier for customers to shop consciously yet to still offer them great value and choice.

To meet this demand, retailers are interested in the knowledge and insight these people may bring with them when recruiting Buyers, Designers and other key head office employees. They want people with about how best to introduce these necessary changes cross-functionally whilst still managing the bottom line.

As these retailers source and sell globally, they produce tens of thousands of garments and transport them by land, sea and air to fulfil their customer’s demands. So retailers’ issues aren’t as straight forward as ditching plastic hangers or using paper over plastic bags. From the bigger issues around supply chain and sourcing to less obvious matters around card types used for labels and packaging, retailers want to ensure their green strategy and message is conveyed at every level and function in their business. This means they are seeking out individuals that possess a knowledge of a product’s life cycle (from factory to shop floor) and its environmental impact, as actions in one function of the business can have a negative knock-on effect on another.

Some retailers are creating specific roles dedicated to analysing the business and make significant greener changes, such as Sustainability Managers/Officers or Sustainable Packaging Managers. Others are adding additional requirements to Buyers and Designers’ existing briefs.

So what can job seekers do to tap into this demand from employers and diversify their experience? As this is a relatively new function within Irish retailers, they aren’t looking for the employees who are the finished article but instead individuals who have perhaps done projects in sustainability in their current role or can demonstrate excellent knowledge or a keen interest in this area. What retailers want is candidates that hold with the skills of a Buyer or Designer etc. such as trend forecasting, sourcing, negotiating, and analytical abilities, coupled with an innate interest in environmental issues and a commitment to work hand-in-hand with external stakeholders to drive sustainability across the broader business.

Want a Career as a Merchandise Planner?

Thinking about a Career as a Merchandise Planner? Excel’s Retail Head Office Consultant Sarah Hurley takes you through everything you need to know…

Merchandise Planning is a relatively new function within Irish buying offices but is just as exciting, fast-paced and rewarding a career as Retail Buying. Merchandise Planners are high in demand. They have a unique skillset and niche expertise and are rewarded with competitive salaries and benefits, a broad career path and numerous choices and plentiful job opportunities with the biggest retailers.

What is a Merchandise Planner?

Merchandise Planners operate a crucial function within a retail Head Office. They work side by side with Buyers to plan, execute and deliver ranges.

What do they do?

People often explain merchandise planning as getting the right merchandise, in the right place, at the right time, in the right quantities at the right price to maximise sales and to minimise markdown. With the buyer, they will look at past performance and future trends, to predict what items will sell best and plan accordingly.

Right Merchandise – Styles, brands, colours, sizes

Right Place – Which store, depending on their budget and location

Right Time – Having merchandise in stores at the right time in the season i.e. ready for Christmas or ‘Back to School’

Right Quantities – Enough for the stores to make their budgets but not have to markdown stock at the end of the season

The Right Price £££– Those that will attract customers in over the competition yet generate a reasonable return on investment for the retailer i.e. profit

What do you need?

Merchandise Planners are in demand because they have a unique blend of skills-

Analytical skills – enjoy analysing data and using this to identify trends and potential risks and opportunities

Communication skills – Must be able to communicate this data and trends to people and build great relationships with suppliers and in-store teams.

Quick thinking– Retail is incredibly fast-paced and merchandise planners need to be quick thinking to spot trends, evaluate large amounts of data and make sound decisions. Things can change very quickly and there are always deadlines to meet.

Commercial Awareness – you need to understand what is going on in the marketplace, your competitors and be able to spot gaps and opportunities

How do you get started?

Most Merchandise Planners come from either a fashion buying & merchandising course or a business/finance related degree and have a mix of both retail and office based experience. Graduates will start their careers as an Allocator or Assistant Merchandiser and work their way up. Opportunities exist within the fashion and non-fashion retail and open up a broad and varied career path.

Common Interview Questions for Buyers

Buying is a highly competitive industry, meaning it’s crucial to ace the interview for the position you are going for. Excel’s Sarah Hurley takes the most common interview questions and how to tackle them.

Due to the size of the retail market in Ireland, there are limited Buying opportunities. Therefore, if you secure an interview, it is important that you build a strong case in order to land the job. Buyers hold a unique skill set so you will need to demonstrate this and relevant experience by giving your personal professional examples when answering their questions.

Tell me about your current area of buying responsibility?

To answer this question successfully, you will start off by giving the interviewer an overview of your department, what you buy and what that involves. Be prepared with your facts and figures and use this question as an opportunity to highlight any successes you and your team have had such as increased sales, increased sell-through rates or improved margins etc. You don’t have to talk actual sales figures but do give percentages if possible, ‘We traded up 5% on plan and reduced mark down by 8% year on year’.

What are your thoughts on the current range? Would do you anything differently?

The interviewer is looking for you to think commercially and critically, and to see that you’ve done your homework. Use your insights into the brand and their competitors to spot any gaps or missed opportunities within the range and explain your reasoning. Make informed suggestions by visiting stores beforehand and/or critiquing the range online and make reference to current trends, what competitors are doing, and what is happening in the wider market.

Who are our main competitors?

This question is to test your understanding of the retail market and where the business sits within this. Consider their customer, and what makes them shop with them over elsewhere. What does the business do better and worse than their competitors? Please keep criticism to a minimum and also be able to explain your thought process with actual examples. For any retail buying job, prepare by researching the market, who the big players are, any recent news (like an acquisition or merger), whose market share is increasing, whose is decreasing, etc. Ensure you discuss competitors operating within the same space and with the same customer base and aesthetic as the company you’re interviewing with. For example, if you are interviewing with Dunnes Stores, you will always talk about a business like Tesco as their direct competitor.

Tell me about some of your biggest negotiating successes?

A major part of any buying job is daily negotiation. Use real-life examples and demonstrate your ability to get the best commercial results for the business, while still maintaining a positive relationship with stakeholders inside and out of the business.

Other Common Questions for Buyer Interviews include:

Common Interview Questions for Buyers


How to become a Retail Fashion Buyer

One of the questions we are presented with time after time is ‘How do I become a Fashion Buyer’. It is an area of immense competition and quality candidates are highly sought. However, it is not something you can walk into. Candidates require a specific skill set, retail experience and an obvious talent and desire to source. We hope to steer prospective candidates in the right direction by compiling this and many more snippets of advice within Fashion Buying. (Our Video is available to view here after you read this informative piece!). We are specialists in this field and on a weekly occurrence, place Fashion Buyers is the best International Retailers. All Retail Buyer jobs can be viewed here.

Buyers are responsible for creating an exciting and timely product assortment that meets and/or exceeds sales and profits for the company. Their role is to execute the company’s strategy while remaining customer focused. They intuitively respond to customers, market trends and develop action plans that drive category specific growth and profitability and are ultimately responsible for the success of their department.

There are two types of Buying. The first type is Selection Buying. This means you select styles and ranges from brands e.g. Nike, Levi’s etc. for your store. You will base what you buy on historical sales information such as what colours, styles etc are right for your customer, trend and also information from the brand itself (they can advise you on what their other customers are buying into for the season. This is how businesses like Brown Thomas and Arnotts for example operate.

The other type of Buying is Development. This is when buyers develop product pretty much from scratch based on past sales performance, trend information and strategy with suppliers/factories who are generally based in the places such as Turkey, Hong Kong, China, Bangladesh and India to name just a few.

The product/samples that are developed are then used in the company’s own/private label ranges e.g. Savida at Dunnes Stores, Atmosphere at Penneys. Sometimes you have a designer from your company with you, sometimes not so you need to be very creative and commercial. You really need to know your sales inside out, be really customer focused (what would they like to buy?) and be a good negotiator in order to get the best cost prices, deliveries, terms that you can. High volume textile retailers such as Penneys, Dunnes Stores and Heatons work like this.

Most retailers use both types of buying to offer their customers choice and value. To do either type though you need to be passionate about product, have a creative yet commercial aptitude, be business minded but most importantly you need to have a good eye and possess the innate ability to identify a ‘winner’.

Buyer’s skill-set

  • Be customer focused and have the ability to identify the appropriate product/trend that will appeal to the customer and ultimately drive sales
  • Have the ability to develop and build desirable and commercial ranges
  • Be able to work in a fast-paced, pressurised environment constantly juggling tasks and being able to prioritise accordingly, for the immediate and long term needs of the business
  • The ability to work and communicate with a broad mix of people from different functions in a business and understand how they contribute to the bigger picture e.g. Marketing, P.R., Quality Assurance, Online etc.
  • Being numerical and having the ability to analyse sales reports, the overall market (your direct competitors) and trends to reach commercially sound decisions which drive the business forward
  • Having a really good eye for detail – this is really important as, for example, even a button, the wrong level of red, fabric type etc can put a customer off and can lose sales
  • Possessing strong leadership skills and have an ability to delegate accordingly
  • Managing suppliers and constantly evaluating them to ensure you are getting the best terms and return for the business from each

As a recruiter, the type of people we put forward for trainee buying roles ideally would have the following key things on their CV-

  • A Fashion buying & merchandising course – there are a lot of these available so shop around. Some are affiliated with the major retailers so it can be a good way to gain an internship and perhaps a job. Do your research and explore which is the best one for you. Try and speak to ex-students if you can and see what they are up to post course
  • Retail experience (even if part time during school or college)
  • Office experience – this can show your IT skills, using internal systems, proficiency using Microsoft Office programs – Excel in particular etc.

As fashion buying is such a competitive area and roles at trainee level don’t come up very frequently, I would recommend that candidates who don’t hold these requirements apply directly to retailers that they would like to work for to try and gain experience that way.

This blog was written by Clare and Sarah, in Excel Recruitment.