Josie Hawes is passionate about retail. From the shop floor, she worked her way up through a series of merchandising and buying jobs - with companies like Woolworths and Ocado - to the lofty heights of retail as head of range with the hip food retailer Pret A Manger. She now works for them as a consultant customer & merchandising manager.
She’s a busy woman, but we were lucky enough to grab a few minutes of her time and fire off a few questions, to bring you her fascinating perspective on what it takes to get to the top of the fast paced and exciting world of retail buying.
Q. How did you get into this sector?
I always liked retail and worked in a fabric shop when I was 15, but when I’d finished at school I decided not to go to university because I didn’t really know what I wanted to study. Instead, I went travelling for a while and when I came back, took a part-time job in Accessorize because by then I needed to earn some money! I worked my way up and eventually became a visual merchandiser for Woolworths and I got some excellent retail experience, which opened my eyes to the possibilities of a career in buying.
You can’t just wake up and decide one day that you want to be a buyer though. I had to take a step down the career ladder and start again as a buyer’s admin assistant. It took hard work and commitment, but I’ve been in the buying industry for 11 years now and I love it.
Q. What three qualities do you think all buyers need?
Definitely a head for numbers – it’s a very numerical job and many people don’t realise that. A huge part of the buyer’s role is to analyse sales figures and reports to make key decisions about the ranges we sell.
In fact, if I go out for a meal at the end of the day with my buying friends, we often find ourselves incapable of the simple matter of splitting the bill, because we’ve all been doing so much number crunching during the day that we’ve reached the saturation point by then.
You must also have a good eye, because the job is unusual in that it mixes numbers with creativity.
Finally, you really do need a thick skin. Pretty much every buyer I know is very confident. You have to be because it’s a fiercely competitive world and senior company executives have high expectations, so buyers are always under pressure.
Q. What’s more important for someone wanting to become a buyer - qualifications or experience?
You can do it both ways, but you must have one or the other. Getting onto a graduate scheme is a brilliant way to start a buying career and many of my colleagues did this. However, it’s just as possible to work your way up – like I did – by starting out in an admin job at the head office of a retail company and taking every opportunity to learn as much as you can about retail from the buyers and other people around you.
I’ve actually found that my own shopfloor experience has helped me in my buying role too, as I have a more rounded understanding of retail.
Q. How do you predict trends in the food retail sector?
At Pret, we work with market research companies to analyse trends. Food trends filter down, so we take account of a range of things from what is happening in top restaurants to what the latest diet trends are. The key is to interpret the trends and produce the right range of products for our customers.
Q. What do you love most about your job?
I absolutely love getting to know about the products, I find it so fascinating to visit supplier factories and see things made and I am constantly finding out things that I never would have known if it weren’t for my job.
When you’ve spent a lot of time getting a product to market and you get to the office on Monday morning and find it is the number one seller, it’s very exciting!
Q. What’s one of the worst things about your job?
The hours can be very long – every buyer I know works long hours for at least some of the time and during my career, I’ve had regular days when I’ve started at 6am and worked until 10pm. This is especially true when we travel. It might sound glamorous to be flying off somewhere to meet with suppliers, but the reality is that you work long days to negotiate deals and also have to juggle effectively to keep your ‘normal’ duties back at the office up to date whilst you’re away.
I would feel very detached if I left retail though – retail jobs keep you connected to other people’s lives and that’s what I love about my work.