Why fashion-buying is central to the life of high street stores

03/25/04

The crucial role of fashion buyers for our high street stores is highlighted in new research sponsored by the ESRC.

This study, begun in the late 1990s as some established clothing retailers, including Marks and Spencer and Laura Ashley were experiencing falling profits, was led by Dr Joanne Entwistle of the University of Essex. It spells out the importance of buyers' knowledge of products and their assessments of markets and consumers.

The study points to features that could apply to other organisations which trade 'cultural commodities', such as advertising and fashion model agencies and design consultancies.

UK clothing selling has become very competitive since the 'retail revolution' of the 1980s. And one major problem identified seemed to be that some retailers had lost their customers and no longer knew their market.

Dr Entwistle said: "The role of buying teams in this competitive environment becomes ever more important since they are at the interface between the retail business and the consumer.

"Buyers are also the public face of retailers with suppliers, and the work they do is highly influential in sustaining those relationships. Though fashion buying may appear to have a purely economic function, it demands acute and detailed cultural knowledge as well as finely honed social skills." Despite much interest in the relationship between buyers and suppliers, the way buying itself works has, until now, remained largely unexamined.

Research focused on the women's wear team of a large department store in London, which has, in recent years, described itself as high fashion and at the 'cutting-edge' of retailing.

It has placed great emphasis on taking risks and changing the look of the store and products in ways that have probably alienated its traditional type of customer but also earned new ones. The study found that fashion buyers' knowledge of products and their calculations about markets and consumers were critical to the store's market strategy and essential for translating its market identity into products that are right for its target customers.

The study says that fashion buying depends upon actively building markets and consumers rather than relying upon fixed ideas of what and who these are.

Dr Entwistle said: "This is especially true in women's wear fashion retailing, which is highly effervescent. As trends move fast, product categories and meanings constantly shift and must be actively translated and reinterpreted by buyers. In the UK this means that stores' customer profiles need to be constantly assessed." Her report points out that risks inherent to fashion are calculated by fashion buyers and sellers by activities such as examining previous sales patterns, seasonal pre-planning and forecasting meetings, and 'floor walks' to view the shop and discuss products with the sales team.

Risk is also reduced by building up detailed knowledge about key products and imagined customers, through on-going involvement with the fashion markets, and by regular checking out competitors.

Dr Entwistle added: "In the store we studied, there has been a careful balancing of risk with business acumen which has, so far, paid off. "It may not be possible to generalise about more mainstream department stores, but our findings illustrate some characteristics of fashion buying in general."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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