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Retail buyers are expected to predict trends to ensure that store shelves remain stocked – but not overstocked – with products.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

Job: Retail buyer

The role: Retail buyers need to understand consumer trends, behaviour and purchasing history in order to predict what shoppers may buy in the future.

"Retail buying is really where the art and science of retailing are combined," said Sean Sedlezky, the manager of program design for the Ted Rogers School of Retail Management at Ryerson University. "They need to analyze sales data, they need to understand differences across their organization and the regions in which they operate, different demographics and weather patterns, so they're buying the right kinds of products for the right locations."

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While nobody can predict the precise quantity of the exact products that consumers will purchase, retail buyers are expected to predict trends and source items to ensure that store shelves remain stocked – but not overstocked – with products.

Mr. Sedlezky adds that retail buyers are responsible for replenishing dwindling inventory and discounting excess stock while accounting for shipping times and profit margins.

Salary: Entry-level retail buyers, who often start with the title of assistant buyer, earn a salary of between $40,000 and $50,000 a year, while established buyers can earn between $50,000 and $80,000, depending on the size of their employer, Mr. Sedlezky said.

"When you get up to senior buyers, general merchandise managers, divisional merchandise managers, up to the VP, you're looking at [a salary] well into the six figures," he said.

Job prospects: Mr. Sedlezky said that although there are plenty of retail buyer positions available in Canada, particularly within major urban centres, many who start out as buyers end up elsewhere in the retail economy.

"There's constant demand for new talent coming into those entry-level [buying] positions," he said, adding that students often enter the program with their hearts set on being a retail buyer but eventually discover other career paths in retail for which they are better suited, including trend forecasting, consumer behaviour and business strategy. "There are a lot of other interesting opportunities that go beyond buying," he said.

Mr. Sedlezky adds that such positions often require the same skill sets, which leads many who set out to become retail buyers onto other career paths.

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Education: While there are continuing education programs in retail buying through institutions such as Ryerson, which offers standalone courses in retail buying that can also provide a step towards a certificate or degree credential. Such credentials, however, aren't always required by employers, Mr. Sedlezky says, though it certainly doesn't hurt a candidate's odds at landing a job.

"Increasingly, degrees are things employers are looking for at the entry level," he said. "Not necessarily a retail degree – because there aren't a lot of them, we're one of the only universities that has one, so that's a leg up if you can get retail specific education – but they definitely want to see an ability to do critical thinking and analytical skills and foresight as well."

Mr. Sedlezky adds that the larger the employer and the budgets controlled by the buyer, the more necessary the degree.

Challenges: Retail buying is a challenging position that comes with a lot of pressure, requiring those in the industry to have an in-depth understanding of business and consumer trends.

"Having empty shelves is a killer in retail, but you also don't want to buy so much that you have to have massive clear-out sales at the end of each season," he said. "It's one of those jobs where you're almost always going to be wrong in one way or another, because guessing the exact right amount of sizes and colours and variations of products in your assortment is next to impossible."

While loyalty programs, e-commerce and big data have made these trends easier to track and predict, they have also burdened retail buyers with significantly more data to analyze and manage.

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Why they do it: Mr. Sedlezky said that retail buyers often enter the industry with an interest in fashion or another product category, while some make the transition from other retail positions through an interest in consumer behaviours and trends.

"People who have been in the industry for a while tend to cite the fact that they can see the results of their labour simply by walking into a store," he said.

Misconceptions: Mr. Sedlezky said that when many people think about retail buyers, they imagine sitting runway-side in fashion hotspots like Milan, New York or Paris, though only a small percentage of retail buyers work in high fashion, and those who do spend only a small fraction of their time scoping out fashion shows.

While clothing is an important element of retail, a large percentage of buyers also work with packaged goods, food, electronics, housewares and other product categories.

"Buying is about driving a successful business; it's not just about travelling around the world and selecting the coolest items that interest you personally," he said. "It's about understanding who your target customer is – and they might have completely different tastes than you."

Give us the scoop: Are you a retail buyer? Write a note in the comments area of this story or e-mail your comment to careerquestion@globeandmail.com and let us know what you would tell others who are interested in the profession.

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