Will buyers vaporize?

The term “vaporized” was first coined in business by digital pioneer Robert Tercek in his book “Vaporized: Solid Strategies for Success in a Dematerialized World.” Tercek revealed how successful enterprises were disrupted by the digital revolution which resulted in many filing for bankruptcy as consumers changed their way of interaction with products forever. According to Tercek, “Whatever can be vaporized will be; any part of your business or product that can be replaced by pure digital information almost certainly will be.” Since reading “Vaporized” in 2015, I’ve wondered if and when my job as a buyer would be transformed and silent software would be making decisions for me. In the last 20 years the music industry has vaporized with the arrival of iTunes. Numerous other companies no longer exist; digital maps are now crowdsourced thanks to Waze, and with Carlotz, dealerships no longer dominate the sale of cars. With the arrival of smartphones and Adobe, film and print fonts have all “vaporized” to the digital realm.

By contrast, Philip Morris had the vision and the resources to invest more than $4.5 billion since 2008 in developing smoke-free alternatives. The decline of tobacco burning cigarettes and the market shift towards tobacco heating products gave birth to IQOS. If you don’t have the commitment and deep pockets of Philip Morris to be your own devil’s advocate, you will sooner or later witness the complete dismantling of your industry. That isn’t to say all businesses will necessarily vaporize, but many will experience a cataclysmic change from its present version.

In AI we are already seeing a “hybrid” model where intermediaries interact between algorithm developers and companies. Once a software is born, it can disrupt your businesses almost overnight. If you’re not willing to disrupt your industry first, someone else will! So how to stay ahead? In relation to fashion, I will discuss how my role as a buyer changed in the industry and suggest how one can better adapt to the ever-evolving market and remain relevant.

Artwork by Jacob Wolff

How buying has changed

Not so long ago being a buyer was one of the most sought-after careers in fashion. Prior to the explosion of social media, buyers were the “silent” forces that dictated next season’s most profitable trends. Working directly with suppliers and brands, they curate the selection of the newest “Must Haves.” These are stocked in stores, ensuring that plentiful assortments are available for purchase. However at present, fashion bloggers and stylists dominate Google searches and the role of the buyer has been diminished. I believe this new reality is part of how fashion buying has changed within the industry. With Instagram swipe-up options, influencers can now promote curated products. In effect online editors have become buyers, recapping runway trends using catchy keywords, shoppable imagery, and curating looks for their readers in the form of newsletters. These often include direct links for purchase or even travel guides with suggestions on what to pack.

On sites such as Moda Operandi consumers have become buyers, pre-ordering looks directly from the runway. The rise of digital native vertical brands (DNVB) also increases “direct-to-consumer” activity. Buyers no longer have to go to vendors to make their selection. Boutiques can showcase their inventory on a global scale and make their products available on a kind of digital fashion “Opentable” such as Farfetch.

Traditionally the role of a fashion buyer was to deliver a desirable selection of wardrobe options, showcasing and predicting new incoming trends, and promoting upcoming designers. Today as we have seen, buying for stores can no longer be the only channel for this profession. The shift toward e-commerce was happening before COVID19. New data from IBM, shows that the pandemic has accelerated consumers’ shift toward e-commerce by five years. E-commerce is projected to grow by nearly 20% YoY in 2020. Social selling has become a commodity and the digital window continues to expand as companies such as Farfetch metaphorically upload physical assets to the net. So is the big box buyer doomed, will buyers only survive working for a company such as Farfetch?

How “Buyers” are evolving

Even at big box retailers the responsibility of a “Buyer” has changed. In my most recent position at Market by Macy’s, although I was appointed the lead womenswear buyer (buying everything from running shoes to dresses), my title was Director of Integrated Merchandising. Macy’s required a well-grounded merchant, knowledgeable in all aspects of the retail business, capable of working with a highly holistic, collaborative approach. Launching something from the ground up meant working in close partnership with Macy’s Brand Experience Officer, VP of Merchandising and Store Design, Editorial, and the direction of Strategy and Operations. This role appears to be the future of buyers.

A buyer is no longer confined to a single role. Scouting, sourcing and nurturing brands and designers is only one side of the coin. Negotiating deals and doing everything to support the brand and its sales, is now a never-ending process. Buyers are getting more involved in the development and execution of the business in order to ensure that the original concept arrives to the customer.

At a disadvantage to influencers who can broadcast their “expertise,” buyers are bound by confidential agreements with suppliers. Buyers often help guide vendors in the stylistic direction they believe will be most saleable to their clients. These are styles that will be “pressed and hung” in stores ready for purchase NEXT season. Revealing these styles or leaking retail strategies would give competitors a decisive advantage.

A sign of the times, buyers are starting to come out from behind the mirror and make their opinions more visible. Net-a-porter’s retail director Elizabeth Von der Goltz appeared as a judge on the Netflix design competition, “Next in Fashion.” This is but one example of how retail directors are now exposing themselves outside of the industry and “letting the customer in” on more of the fashion process.

Artwork by Jacob Wolff

How to stand out

Enriching the customer experience

Since today’s customer has more power and knowledge, I believe it is essential for brands and retailers to involve the customer in the process. As we have seen influencers have become fashion buyers for their followers, but the Instagram polls where influencers ask their followers for opinions are related to products already in the later stages of production. Would it not strengthen the relationship between influencers and “super fans” if such polls were done at an earlier phase in product development?

Buyers absolutely need to know what their customers are into. One of the keys to being a successful buyer is understanding that you are not buying for yourself, a distinct difference from being an influencer where product choices reflect their personal brand. What a buyer likes is of little importance to the customer, if the needs of the customer aren’t being met. Presently in this time of fiscal crisis, a real danger is that retail companies may focus too much on profitability targets, and look backwards to last year’s performance, instead of looking forward towards the next “must have.” It’s like a general fighting the last war which has never proven to be a winning strategy. Buyers can become trapped prioritizing sales targets over what the customer might actually want. This ultimately leads to dissatisfaction on all sides, as the sales targets are not met because the desire of the customer were not given enough say in the buying process. The satisfaction of the customer must be put first, not only when the product is involved but also during the buying experience, otherwise the customer will go elsewhere.

The buying experience expectation

With the evolution of global online emporiums such as Amazon, “brands” are moving into the background. Customers expect ease in converting an interest into a purchase and speedy delivery has taken on particular importance. The consumer expects efficient technology that offers a higher return on their time.

Traditionally, the buyer focused solely on the product but today this is no longer enough. My duties as a buyer changed dramatically in the last 2 years. I went from just buying to developing new departments and re-thinking merchandising strategies to make shopping easy. In my last role at Macy’s developing the off-mall format Market by Macy’s, we reframed the whole idea of brand positioning. We decided to think about buying by need and end use rather than by brand. This strategy received compliments from the Ralph Lauren brand. In their opinion this merchandising approach elevated their brand’s positioning in the women’s department.

Bringing your personal story to the process

Every buyer has a personal story that they should bring into the equation. I grew up in Venice and since my father was the chief conservator of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, I spent hours playing in Peggy’s garden. There, a love of art and appreciation of good design was instilled in me at an early age. Having an American father, Asian mother and growing up in Italy I became bilingual and tricultural. Perhaps it was this combination of experiences that helped me develop my taste and diversity in style and how to tell a beautiful story through clothes.

True creativity takes courage and vision. If you can add a personal angle to the job then you have the ability to make something truly original that is worth sharing.

Amparo Palou Schwartzbaum is an accomplished and award-winning retail merchant with a proven track record in developing original and successful business strategies, identifying high focus growth trends and markets. A decade of retail experience from Max Mara to Macy’s, she most recently helped develop Market by Macy’s, an innovative start-up. Designed as an experiential, communal shopping venue, its objective was to better service the needs of both customers and brands, in a curated two-sided marketplace. Amparo has the ability to stay current and the creative nimbleness to navigate the total transformation of today’s fashion industry.

More from Amparo Palou Schwartzbaum

I help businesses stay relevant by re-imagining a better way to connect with the consumer formerly @macys @marketbymacys @maxmara

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I help businesses stay relevant by re-imagining better ways to connect with the consumer formerly @macys @marketbymacys @maxmara

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Amparo Palou Schwartzbaum

Amparo Palou Schwartzbaum

I help businesses stay relevant by re-imagining better ways to connect with the consumer formerly @macys @marketbymacys @maxmara

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