When the Buyer was King

Retail Editor 5, June 9, 2011

Jody BradshawJody Bradshaw
ONCE UPON A TIME when department stores ruled the retail world, their buyers were kings. And so it was when I joined Bloomingdale's training squad in 1960.
     Note I didn't say "kings and queens" because almost all the buyers were men then.
     A buyer's department belonged to him. As long as his sales and margin were good, he could do no wrong. He could dress as he liked, come and go as he liked, and his was the final word regarding everything in his world. He was virtually autonomous.
     Along with this sovereignty went a commensurate amount of responsibility and very busy, varied, and long days. While he did have a staff to implement these tasks, the buyer was responsible for: selecting and reordering the merchandise, training the selling staff, maintaining his displays and selling floor, signing off bills, taking inventory - all before PCs and calculators existed to aid with much of this work.
     Not only did Bloomingdale's buyers visit one of their three branch stores every week (part of their kingdom), but it was also policy that they work on their selling floors every morning.
     At first this mystified me because buyers were so revered I couldn't understand why they were waiting on customers when they could be out in the market making brilliant buys. When I became a buyer, I quickly learned the wisdom of it. Since buyers did their own reordering, they certainly knew what was selling; but only with direct customer contact would they know what key items they might be missing or how some of their existing wares might be merchandised better or improved.
     Buyers learned every aspect of their businesses inside and out. Since they often kept their jobs for their entire career, some became so proficient, well known, and regarded that they became living legends. In domestics, for example, Bloomingdale's table linen buyer Hy Bayer was as famous in the industry, both here and abroad, as a movie star.
     To illustrate the power implicit in being a buyer in those days, let me share a personal story. In my final buying assignment at Bloomingdale's my domain occupied the entire 8th floor of the main store with several departments of lifestyle and casual furniture. One day my boss visited my floor and noticed a merchandise tag was missing. He barged into my office, instructed me to leave the vendor with whom I was working, and join him on the floor. Pointing out the missing tag he ordered me to drop everything, and replace it immediately.
      I said I would as soon as I finished my vendor meeting. "Now!" he barked, triggering a terrible argument during which I backed my "boss" across the floor and onto the down escalator, where he slowly sank out of sight. I finished my meeting, replaced the tag, and never heard a peep from anyone about my behavior.
     After all, it was my floor. And this time, the buyer wasn't king - she was queen!
     Bradshaw shattered the glass ceiling of male-dominated home furnishings retailing to hold some of the highest merchandising positions at Bloomingdale's, A&S, and Macy's as well as being president of Workbench and   Conran's Habitat. After publishing her autobiography Jody, she is finishing The Millionaire Shopkeeper, dedicated to helping independent retailers compete in this challenging environment.

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