How To… Be A Buyer in the Digital Age

With Temple & Webster's head buyer Vanessa Ross

Temple & webster - Vanessa Ross 2 resizedPhoto courtesy of Temple & Webster

As buyer for online homewares retailer Temple & Webster, Vanessa Ross’ day is filled with furniture that looks like it was plucked straight from your Instagram feed. Dream job, anyone?

Here Vanessa spills on the perks and challenges of buying furniture for a retailer that’s 100 per cent online, from hunting for hidden gems in exotic locations to predicting what consumers will want 18 months down the track.

Do you think people understand what it is to be a buyer?

No, I don’t! There is a tendency to think it is solely about picking product. My first role in buying at Howards was as a buyer’s assistant and that was very much a business admin role. It has always been the forward planning and data analysis side that appealed to me. From there, I moved to Freedom, which is obviously a well-established and well-known business. I started as a buyer for all different categories but firstly with what I knew – bathroom and storage – before moving into the decorative side of the business.

Did you feel accountable for sales as a buyer at that time?

Yes, it did keep me up at night and for the first few seasons, I worried. We were often making decisions 18 months in advance and had to achieve a balance between not being too safe and dull and still not being risky. Eventually, I came to understand I had a team with confidence in me, and the fact that I wasn’t taking the chance on my own helped me overcome anxiety. Also, over time you retain info about what has sold and gain confidence as you can look at successes and failures and understand trends and patterns.

What challenges are you faced with?

The toughest thing as a buyer is to understand the different styles of customer and work on resisting your personal taste. To be in touch with the customer, you need to research their aesthetic, and what they will pay. If you sway too much towards your own style and that of your friends and family, you can miss the market.

Does this mean putting your ego and taste aside?

Yes, it is important to concentrate on market leads, educating yourself on trends, colors and designs that in the end the customer will follow. Learning what way to curb the buy is important, and by that I mean balancing safe with adventurous and putting serious thought into the weight of stock – what are you backing with depth of stock? What adds on-trend excitement?

What attributes are required to become a successful retail buyer?

It is often misunderstand what it is to be a buyer. Relationships are important with your factories and wholesalers and with the team, but the need for business skills is often underestimated.

Was travel an important part of the job?

Travelling as a buyer was a privilege but also a lot of work. Travelling alone could be lonely after a few weeks as I sometimes covered six or seven countries in one trip. Travelling throughout Asia and making decisions I would often think, ‘Am I going crazy or is this great?’ I loved the food and the people, particularly in Vietnam which became my second home.

How to you sell furniture online when people can’t touch and feel a product?

The main difference is how you communicate with the customer – every day we are communicating with a great deal of product information from quality styled visuals, technical details, often the back story of the brand and all to your inbox. It is a fully integrated business in that it is collaborative across disciplines – from buying to creative, marketing, editorial, customer care and delivery.

Has anything surprised you?

Yes, the size of the membership and how many people shop with us every day, showing the confidence in the brand. It means the quality is there.

What is your advice for budding retailers?

There is so much opportunity in online buying now and especially in the next five years. My advice is to get involved through work experience and see what the role really is. That way you will understand the pace and the balance needed between being creative and analytical.

You’re having a baby soon! How will you juggle both worlds?

I really don’t know exactly but I do know I want to keep both worlds separate, use time efficiently and be present in both worlds. I have great family support with two eager grandmothers – for the rest, we will have to wait and see.


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