In this series, we interview experienced buyers who have seen thousands of product pitches and decided which ones made it onto store shelves. For this article, we sat down with Michael Dusharm. Michael is a former buyer with 10 years of experience buying for Lowe’s.
R: So, just to start, how would you describe the job of buyer?
M: I think the most basic description of a retail buyer or merchant is that you have sole responsibility of a select group of products. You get to choose what products are for sale and how those products get merchandised to the customer.
R: How did you become a buyer?
M: I came into Lowe’s right out of school with a marketing degree and a management degree. I started with their merchandising assistant training program, which was a program set up to deal with backend support.
When I got into that role, I fell in love with merchandising and worked my way up from there pretty quickly. I went into planogramming, which is basically the blueprint of what each shelf is supposed to look like. We covered how many of each product would go on the shelf, what the exact dimensions of each shelf were, that kind of stuff.
I worked very closely with the merchant, and her husband was actually a vice president in merchandising at the time, so he gave me an opportunity to get into merchandising.
R: It seems like the job of buyer is considered exciting, hard to get, and prestigious. Do you think that’s generally how the job actually is?
M: Yeah, I mean, it definitely is a pretty prestigious position. You have the power to influence customer’s buying decisions and impact their lives by helping them in some form or fashion. I’d say it’s a very fun position, which can definitely be stressful at times.
All the performance responsibility falls on your shoulders. The success of the business is directly correlated to you, you are ultimately responsible for everything that happens, good or bad.
Plus, there are a lot of support teams that you’re dependent on, to help get you to the goals that you’re trying to get to. So you’re not only a buyer, you’re also a project manager who guides the troops and aligns them to your goals.
R: What departments would you work with?
M: Basically, the entire organization revolves around buying. If you think about a wheel analogy, merchandising is the center of the wheel, and all the different spokes follow that.
So the marketing, logistics, and store operations teams have to be lockstep with the decisions that you’re making as a merchant for it to be executed correctly. You can have the best products in the world, but if you can’t execute on a cohesive vision, then it’s not going to work.
R: What type of products did you sell?
M: I sold a lot of different things at Lowe’s. I started my career in the garden department. I sold flowers, trees, shrubs, and other plants as a regional buyer for a select area of the country. Plants have to be bought and sold regionally because the product is specific to growing zones.
After three years, I had an opportunity to go to outdoor power equipment. I bought pressure washers, string trimmers, and tillers. I had a lot of success there and was recruited over to heating and cooling to buy the heating products. I bought fire pits, portable electric heaters, construction heaters, and fireplaces in that role.
After that, I did a specific project in business development for our Manhattan stores. They were testing smaller format stores, and they needed a merchandising person to help determine the mix in those stores.
The smaller Lowe’s in Manhattan had a different customer base and space requirements than most Lowe’s throughout the country. So I did that for a couple more years, then I actually got moved back into merchandising. I bought hand tools for a short amount of time.
In my 10 years, I had a lot of success. I was able to win manager of the year and become a member of the double-digit comp club.
R: What does that mean?
M: That’s when sales are double digits over the previous year’s sales, so a 10% or more increase. Double-digit comps are considered a pretty exclusive club in the retail industry just because it’s really hard to move the needle on volume that’s so big.
So yeah, it was fun, it was a blast. But at the same time, I felt like the organization was changing while I was there. I felt like there was limited opportunity to get promoted to the next level, and I needed to broaden my horizons and see a different side of the table.
And that’s kind of why I moved to sales, which is the role I’m in today. Now I see it from both sides, and I get a better perspective on how things get to where they need to be. And I know what buyers are thinking when they’re making their decisions. That really gives me a great perspective.
R: What is in the head of buyers when they’re considering new products?
M: Each product group is really different. You have your corporate mandates, where everyone’s marching to the same goals. And then you have what the buyers are looking for in each category.
They’ll often look at their current product’s performance in their line review and say, here are the goals we want to get to. They’re all similar, they all want to improve their overall profitability and sales. Whatever they invest in has to be more profitable, and they have different ways to go about doing that.
Obviously, the easiest way is to look at your current products and replace what’s not performing. Or you can find something new and innovative, or look at your competition and see where they’re succeeding or failing.
You can also pull back and look at the industry. You can try to get in front of what’s happening big picture so that you can make a change to your set and capture market share. You want to get people coming to your store instead of the competitors.
R: I’m coming from a place of ignorance about home improvement products, but I would just assume that we have already figured out the best fire pits, power tools, and even plants. Did you see constant innovation even in very established categories?
M: It varies by category. Certain ones just naturally have more innovation than others. Taking power tools as an example, the power of the battery continues to grow, so you push the needle on how many volts is standard and that kind of thing.
Certain categories are very commodity driven. Things like nuts and bolts, that’s more about how efficient you can be in your inventory. You want to make sure the shopping experience is good, that everything is easy to understand for the customer, and that you’re competitively priced.
All that falls into the merchant’s responsibility to manage. And innovation can be a great way to compete with the competition. You know, it’s all a market share game. They want people to come to Lowe’s instead of Home Depot or Amazon or any other retailers out there. So yeah, innovation is a big part of that.
R: This all seems very practical, and I feel like when you’re on the maker’s side, it’s a lot about your personal story. Do you feel like you’re motivated by a really great sales pitch or a really great story? Or did you pretty much go into meetings already knowing what you wanted to see?
M: You generally have an idea of what you are looking for but every now and then you are surprised by what a vendor brings to the table. I think there are situations where you can relate to your personal experience, and it helps to kind of buy into what’s going to be sold.
You know, if it solves a problem that you yourself had in the market, then you can relate to that. You can easily imagine other customers relating to the same thing. It helps you get that sense of security that maybe this idea has merit. The key is balancing that with the data piece. Consumer insights, market surveys, and that kind of thing.
You can find yourself wondering, will the rest of the country like it as much as me? You know, I fell into that trap a couple of times. I personally thought the item was awesome, and I recommended it to all my friends. But sometimes items for some reason or another, don’t do as well as you anticipated.
Maybe it’s something that has a style element. When I was buying fireplaces, for example, I brought in what I thought was a really on trend piece that had a lot of cool, innovative features.
And it just did not sell, especially in the midwest where consumers really hadn’t headed towards that look, and they were still more old school in terms of the type of furniture style they preferred. So that was a learning moment for me.
R: That’s interesting, because I could totally see that going in the opposite direction, where you did end up being a trendsetter, and people liked something they had never seen before. It seems like you just don’t know what’s going to happen in stores.
M: You can make educated guesses, but you never know for sure. I’d say that merchandising is a blend. You need to use your artistic taste, and you have to have the science behind it.
There are merchants I’ve seen in the past that are really great on the science, you know they’re data geeks that know the numbers back and forth. Then there’s the old school merchant philosophy where it’s all kind of gut, and they make some big bets based on instinct.
Now, major retailers are looking for a blend. They want merchants who are really tight on their analytics, who can dive deep into the program and understand what’s working, what’s not, and why. But they also want somebody that still has that art piece, who can kind of look at the situation, take a global view, and have that natural inclination.
R: With a company as big as Lowe’s, how would you get your data, and what type of data would you look at?
M: I would break it down by the different attributes of the category. Taking fireplaces again as an example, you can look at the numbers for size, type of finish, and then by specific vendor. Or maybe I’d get a little more granular, like the type of heat, and analyze the growth trend in infrared versus standard heat.
So you can play with the data in a bunch of different ways to try to understand what’s happening and why. From there you kind of glean insights, and you can come up with a strategy to continue to grow and win.
R: How often would you hear pitches for new products?
M: If you think about someone who’s in the Smart Home industry, those products are ever changing. So you’ll be hearing more pitches, more often, as things continue to evolve in the marketplace.
You hear a lot less pitches if you’re in a category where the standards of the industry aren’t changing as much, like fencing. In those categories, once you’ve made a decision you’re more likely to stick with it.
So it varies depending on the category, but it could be by season, every year, or even every two to three years for some products.
The timing is decided by both the buyers and the vendors. Your vendors may let you know that it’s time to start looking at certain categories because they know the products are changing in that space.
Or things could change because of cost reasons. If a vendor has a cost increase, the buyer may go ahead and open the area up to see if they can get a lower price and avoid the old vendor’s price increase.
R: During pitches, who would you speak to? Always sales reps, or founders as well?
M: It’s a mixture, it depends on what industry it is. Larger companies don’t have sales reps because they have full-time sales teams that just work for that company.
With smaller manufacturers, or manufacturers that don’t have much experience in a certain channel, there’s more opportunity for sales reps to come in and help. In some cases, the dollar amounts just aren’t big enough to justify an entire employee when they can spend a fourth of that and get a rep to do something very similar.
Certain retail executives and merchants hate the idea of a sales rep. They look and say wow, why don’t you just give me that commission? Instead of paying that guy, decrease the cost by what you’re giving him and I’ll take the margin.
Some people feel this way because they’re remembering how things used to be, and they don’t believe sales reps provide a high enough level of service. Back in the old days, it was very buddy buddy.
As long as you got the meeting, you could sit back and relax once it was over and there wasn’t a ton of follow-up. The days of that are pretty much gone now. Reps today have to show the merchant that they’re willing to dig deep and add a lot of value.
Successful reps now provide a path of much more value to the merchants in terms of analyzing the business, communicating, and being local and able to react quickly to problems.
R: Do you have any overall suggestions for entrepreneurs pitching products? Any tips or things to avoid?
M: I think in general you’ve got to think about the customer’s perspective. Is this going to work for the customer? You’ve got to start there, then think about why this product is going to win in the marketplace.
Another thing to consider would be about how big stores like Lowe’s buy programs as much as products. They’re buying truckloads of products, and a lot of times those truckloads have multiple items from the same vendor.
So think about how you can bring solutions, in this case, you want to fill the truck with more than one item. If there are accessories that can ride on the truck with the main product, that can help get the cost down, and also drive up the retailer’s margin.
I do think it’s up to a rep to help coach makers and prep them on the retailer’s expectations and standards prior to meeting with the merchant. Everyone thinks their product is awesome, but reps need to give them perspective before they go to retail. I’ve seen examples where the entrepreneur wasn’t aware of some of these standards and walked out of the room with a bad taste in their mouth.
R: Well, thanks so much for talking with me, this was very informative.
M: No problem.