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 Stephanie Trowbridge. Stephanie is a former beauty buyer with over 10 years of experience.
Robin: What types of companies were you a buyer at?
Stephanie: I was a buyer at three different types of retailers, all in beauty. One was specialty beauty, one was big box, and the last was off-price.
R: What’s off-price?
S: Off-price are stores like TJ Maxx, Marshalls, and Burlington Coat Factory. It’s just how they’re categorized.
R: I see. So, how did you end up becoming a buyer?
S: It’s actually something I went to school for. I majored in fashion merchandising, which I heard about through a friend, and then did my research and thought it would be the perfect fit.
My friend who was going to major in merchandising told me her goal was to become a buyer, so I researched the job and I thought, oh that sounds like something I would like doing, so I found a program that was highly rated and enrolled.
R: And then after school, you were able to get interviews fairly easily?
S: Yeah. I went to a state school that had a lot of really great connections with large retailers.
They would do job fair days with a ton of major retailers, and internships were a required part of the program. It was a normal four-year degree, and I have a business minor as well.
For my first buying role I started out through an apprenticeship program at a major retailer, it allowed me to really learn the job while getting excellent training all at the same time. Most major corporations have these types of programs now and utilize them to fill those opening level assistant buyer positions. It’s a great way for those who are interested in the job to start out!
R: Do you have an independent passion for the beauty industry?
S: I do. I’ve always been a bit of a beauty junkie. The very first category I was a buyer for was not beauty, but the store had a beauty department. And so my goal was to move into beauty because I felt so much more connected to the product.
R: It seems like being a buyer is a very high-status job that a lot of people want. Did it feel like that?
S: I mean it’s definitely exciting. I don’t know if it’s always necessarily what people think it is. I think people kind of have a vision of you sitting in a fancy conference room, pointing and saying ‘I’ll take that,’ and there’s actually a lot of analysis that goes into it.
You have to have a very strong foundation in finance, you have to be very good at numbers since your main responsibility is managing a P&L for your assigned area.
R: So if you weren’t sitting in a conference room pointing at fancy stuff, what was the day to day like?
S: Honestly it depended on the day of the week, but every day is different. Typically, for every retailer, Mondays are report day. You analyze the data from the week prior, see what worked and what didn’t, make adjustments, and have a lot of meetings.
Usually, the middle of the week is when you would take market meetings, where you would be sitting in conference rooms, potentially meeting with either new or current vendors. And then there’s preparation for all of those meetings, depending on where you are in the planning cycle.
New vendors are a little bit easier. You’re just going to go over their products and talk to them about their strategy, so the pressure is on their end. If it’s a current vendor, both sides have to prep because you always do joint business planning. You need to see how they’re tracking against whatever your plan is, and your discussion is typically focused around that and future plans.
Every single company I’ve worked for has plans by brand and by sku, typically these are built off previous years sales data and category trends. This gives you a basis for how the brand is indexing for the year. You would pull all that data. Any trend information you want to share and any information about upcoming programs you need to relay or want the brand to participate in and use that for your discussion.
Depending on the retailer, if they do planograms you could be in planning mode, looking up market trends and doing a full analysis of the business.
In cases where we didn’t have planograms, you’re just kind of constantly in the market looking at trends, trying to stay on top of everything, and bring the latest and greatest trends to your customer. And of course, you’re always taking into account the financial piece and paying very close attention to what the customer is responding to. So it’s never dull.
R: That sounds like such an abstract concept, trying to find these trends. What techniques would you use to look for something that doesn’t exist yet?
S: You look for it in a bunch of different ways. Now that social media is so beauty driven, a lot of trends come from there. So I sit there at night and in my free time and scroll looking to see if there’s anything trending, what new launches are happening, and if there are any color stories that are sticking out. You pay attention to everything from the actual product to the packaging.
There are trade shows you can go to which showcase trends and new vendors. Usually, you will see some type of theme throughout the show, whether it’s a new ingredient, technology or product category.
Then there is good old fashioned competitive shopping. Spending time in the stores, seeing what the focus point of different retailers is and what story it’s telling you.
R: What are the key important numbers and statistics for analyzing a product, and seeing its success or failure?
S: Productivity is always important but key metrics can vary slightly depending on the type of retailer and what the buyer is responsible for. For instance I was responsible for turns at one retailer, but other retailers wouldn’t review this metric at all. Another big one is the overall profitability of a vendor and their items, which all retailers look at very closely.
If you’re in retail where they do any sort of displays, those can have a big impact. So those are things you would analyze on Monday. Was that ad successful? Was that display successful?
Off-price is completely different. It’s really just product driven, so you’re just looking at how many units sold, what the best sellers are, and what the the sell thru was. Typically there is no promotional or display activity.
There’s always a criteria. That criteria is going to vary from company to company, but there’s always a standard. So you look at everything and how it’s indexing against your standard. Sales and margin are always going to be key metrics no matter what retailer you are.
R: This seems like a very basic question, but if you have a display with certain things being featured, you’re saying you expect to see sales rise for those things in the windows?
S: Yeah, exactly. If you have something on display, you would expect to see a lift to it. So if you’re selling 100 units a week on average, you’d expect there to be some sort of a lift, over and above what you typically see.
S: Oh yeah, that’s just lingo. It’s a rise in sales. You’d expect to see a rise in sales.
R: I can’t believe I’ve shopped my entire life and never thought about that. I just see the window and never think about it, but of course, the store is tracking how much the display is selling.
S: Yeah, see now you’re going to shop differently.
R: That’s very interesting. So in a pitch, what would blow you away, and what would really turn you off from the product or entrepreneur?
S: It’s a couple of things. I mean packaging is really, really important. This is specific to beauty, but I would say you definitely have to have great packaging that’s eye-catching.
Is it clear for your customer to understand? Is it telling the story that it needs to tell? Does it have enough details on it? Is it visually pleasing? Can you tell what the product is? That sort of thing.
Besides packaging, you’re also thinking about how this product would fit into your current assortment. Is there anything special or different about it in comparison to what you have already? A good brand would research the retailer ahead of time and tell you in the meeting how they think they fit in your assortment and would be a compliment to your stores.
I always say the best presentations come in prepared. We always want to hear about their brand story, what their reason for being is, what their purpose is. Why should we choose this product to come into the stores? Bring a presentation and samples to try, every buyer loves playing with new product and testing it out. After all, the product needs to do what it says it will or there will be no repurchasing!
R: How often would you see new products?
S: It depends on the type of retailer. With off-price, I literally saw new product every single week. My entire job was finding new product all the time. And then other retailers you only reset a couple times a year.
You’re never not looking for sure, but you have restrictions on when you can and cannot bring in new product. Unless you’re going to do some type of display.
R: Who would you normally see in the pitches?
S: It just depends. Sometimes the sales rep, could be a founder. Just whoever is the most knowledgeable about the product, can negotiate all the terms, and has all the information about the product.
R: How would people get meetings with you if they didn’t know you already?
S: It’s again going to depend on the company. In one of my former jobs, they had a team that all new products had to go through before they could get to the actual buyer.
In other cases, people would reach out to us directly, we sought out people at trade shows, people would get passed through by knowing someone who knew me. People would reach out to me through LinkedIn. I’ve had a ton of people that reached out to me through LinkedIn.
Basically, however you can get in contact with the right person.
R: What was your favorite part about being a buyer?
S: Indulging in being a product junkie was probably my favorite part. Personality wise, I also love planning, I loved putting together a full plan and getting to see stuff in store. It’s pretty cool to see something you worked so hard on come to life in stores!
R: And your least favorite part?
S: I would say the least favorite part was having to deliver bad news. It’s just not fun for anybody.
R: Overall, what’s your most important advice for founders or makers?
S: I think honestly, the most important part was for people to come prepared. Nothing irritated me more than – and this would happen especially at trade shows – when people would schedule a meeting with you and they’d say, okay, tell me about your company, I don’t know anything about them.
You instantly stop taking those people seriously. Why do you want to be in our stores if you don’t even know what we are about? You should look for retailers that have a consumer base that you are targeting with your products, not every single retailer will be a good fit for your product and that’s ok. Focus on the ones that are, and put your effort into making a great presentation and putting together tailored programs for those retailers and you will get a much better return.
Entrepreneurs need to do their research, go into one of the stores ahead of time and see how you fit in. Even go as far as looking and seeing which brands they carry, so you can tell the buyer which brands you think would be a good fit next to yours and why.
The more knowledgeable you are the product side, the easier the conversation becomes.
R: In terms of business statistics or numbers, are there any specific questions it’s good for people to know walking into these meetings?
S: You should know the numbers surrounding your product, and for the retailer, learn as much as you can. There’s going to be limited information beforehand, but if you get the meeting they’ll share whatever their standards/terms are for the area.
Make sure you ask ahead of time for any information they can give you, prepare based on that and present a program that meets their standards/terms: margin requirements, marketing funding, display funding).
R: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me, this was very interesting and helpful.
S: Totally! No problem.