July 15, 2011,
In the mid-sixties, for example, as a Home Furnishings Fashion Coordinator for Bloomingdale's, each spring I made three consecutive one-month swings around Europe with our table linen buyer, our housewares senior merchant, and finally, with our blanket buyer. Later, as modern furniture buyer, I made spring trips to Scandinavia, fall trips to Italy, and for quite some time flew to Paris every weekend to buy one-of-a-kind artisan furniture. Buyers went almost anywhere for special products and developed strong relationships with key suppliers.
Most department stores traveled like Bloomingdale's, and managements viewed foreign buying trips as more than just merchandise-procuring trips, but also as educational and developmental opportunities. So, at Bloomingdale's a new buyer's first three days of a European trip were spent in Paris, absorbing the culture and learning how to travel abroad. During these trips we ate in the best restaurants, stayed in the finest hotels, explored new cities and visited points of cultural interest during downtime.
But we also worked hard, often traveling inordinate hours in primitive conditions to out-of-the way suppliers in our constant quest for something new. With all this exposure, we learned practically all there was to know about our products and became acknowledged experts in our merchandise classifications. We were also involved with our products from their "cradle to the grave" often creating, sometimes uncrating and displaying, always pricing, inventorying, and occasionally even selling them to the customer.
Later, in the mid-70s, as department stores came under attack by mass merchants, stores like Macy's all but abandoned Europe and began to concentrate on the Far East, visiting both fairs and factories, in search of large quantities of mainstream products at sharp prices.
By the 80s, most department stores had formed or joined foreign buying services, like the Associated Merchandising Corporation, which gathered samples from around the world and presented them to the buyers. These organizations usually held two-or three-day merchandise meetings, often abroad, which became the extent of the buyer's foreign travel.
Today, with the emphasis on price and value, buyers no longer travel the world in search of uniqueness. Instead, vendors bring the products from overseas to them, or the buyer's import person searches abroad for inexpensive production capabilities or cheap labor. While undoubtedly more efficient, it is certainly not as personal, nor does it afford the unforgettable globetrotting adventures that we sometimes had.
Returning from a buying trip in 1976, I stopped in Russia to refresh. I was constantly shadowed during my visit, and when departing was silently, menacingly detained for many hours by airport security. Afraid I might not be permitted to leave, imagine my exaltation when finally boarding the plane to America ... just in time for our Bicentennial celebration on July 4!