“‘Black Friday’ was called ‘Black Friday’ because it was the day of the year that signified when retailers started making profits for the year. It was when they came out of the red and went into the black,” said Sharon Davis, a former buyer with over 30 years of experience in the fashion industry. She worked as a merchandising director at various stores, including The Broadway Southwest in Phoenix, Arizona, the Gap when they launched their Old Navy division, and Levi Strauss. “It’s really competitive. It’s about getting customers into your store and there are a lot of dollars at stake.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, buyers and fashion directors were high-profile fashion celebrities; an endorsement (or lack thereof) from Bloomingdales’ Kal Ruttenstein could make (or ruin) an item of clothing. Praise from Barney’s Simon Doonan could motivate fashionistas to sport his adopt a particular trend within a mere few days of a witty and positive review.
Black Friday retailers earn over a third of their revenues for the year during the busy time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s – and their success turns in part on the choices their buyers make about the most prized gifts of the season. Buyers dictate consumers’ preferences for fashion in our everyday lives.
“When I was a men’s buyer, you think about what kind of gifts people are going to buy for their husbands, and brothers, and boyfriends, etc. You really focus on that kind of period. You focus on sweaters, and shirts, and ties. It’s a combination of gift giving and trend-right products,” said Davis.
Buyers also need to understand their target consumer, which changes from store to store. “The key to being a really good buyer is knowing that consumer understanding and being able to marry that with fashion trends. And then purchasing an assortment that’s really something that is commercially viable, something that your customers would want to buy,” said Davis.
I decided to go out and find a buyer with whom I could discuss an ex-buyer’s observations.
Without the company’s approval, I really cannot talk to you.”
That was the email I received from a fashion buyer for a major sportswear brand – a buyer who was eager to speak with me until someone corporate said no thanks.
The unfortunate news continued.
“Dear Valued Customer,
Thank you for contacting Lord & Taylor. Please submit your request of interest in writing to our Corporate Headquarters.
Thank you again for contacting Lord & Taylor.”
I tried Bergdorf Goodman, Sak’s Fifth Avenue, Barney’s, and Macy’s. All impenetrable doors.
“Macy’s buyers do not do interviews. But if you give me a sense of the kind of questions you have, I will get them to the right person,” said Jim Sluzewski, the Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications and External Affairs for Macy’s Inc.
I sent my inquiry. The reply read, “there is no one able to answer these questions at this time. Keep in mind that it’s the week before Thanksgiving — the busiest time of the retail year. All of our people are firmly focused on running the business. As noted, most of your questions are buyer-related. In addition, as previously noted, our buyers do not do interviews.”
The era of buyers taking pride in their opinions ended years ago.
“The large companies really dictate who speaks to the press and who doesn’t,” said Davis. “I think there is a misunderstanding sometimes because they do not want any proprietary information released, like sales figures, etc., so they tend to keep buyer people away from the media, especially if they haven’t had media training. They like to control the message that is coming out of the organization.”
“When I was at Gap we had a Gap spokesperson who was informed and someone who represented the organization the way the organization wanted to be represented,” said Davis, “and speaks really of only those things the organization wants out. It’s just about controlling what gets out to the media.”
So if you decide to buy a pair of mango-orange jeans or a chartreuse blouse this holiday season, don’t blame me. I did my best to uncover what the buyers were thinking for holiday shoppers, and technicolor clothing may or may not be the key to fashion happiness. Buyers are not as outspoken as they used to be, since the fashion world, especially in a weak economy, likes to keep to itself. There is a better chance of a Christmas miracle than of unlocking the secrets inside a buyer’s head.