Is Best Practice Buying Killing The Art of Range Vision?

The retail industry in this country is blessed with some of the best retail buyers and buying practices in the world. Combining data analysis with sourcing and negotiating skills, these experienced professionals manage their categories with ultimate precision and definitive numbers to eek continual productivity gains from all the inputs within their obvious control.

This has become the central focus of merchandise management, but some would argue that – in the best traditions of the human condition to favour rational thinking and linear logic above all else – it has relegated range vision to the position of after thought, if it hasn’t killed it off completely in some instances.

For those who have forgotten what Merchandise Directors of the old school used to do, range vision used to be about understanding trend and pulling together range stories around which product could be developed and clustered anew each season to inspire category managers, the marketing team and shoppers alike. It was the first step in the process – not the last – and the story or theme formed the backbone for analysing what products, where, when and how much.

It was a forward looking skill that understood obvious ‘newness’ and magnetic storytelling matched to where shopping behaviour was heading generated greater stimulus to customers than subtle variation to the same old product with low price as the primary reason to buy.

As the big American business-consulting firms with their academic models rolled into retail in the 1980s and beyond, the industry began the switch to an anal focus on gross profit percentage and cost control to drive profit through volume. The pendulum swung very heavily to replenishment and continuity driven by unambiguous numbers.

The problem with logic and numbers is the chauvinism with which they are applied within corporations. On the surface they seem so straightforward and clear that we often forget that they are solely focussed on the past. And in retail, history does not always indicate the future. Just because you were successful last season, doesn’t mean you’ll be successful next season and just because an item sold last season, doesn’t mean it will sell in higher numbers next season. Retail isn’t about pure accounting. It is about connecting customers to merchandise.

While nobody in their right mind would suggest the pendulum should swing to the other extreme, in the 21st century we need to re-discover the sustainable balance between rearward analysis of past data and forward looking range vision to create merchandise ranges and stories that inspire people to spend more and shop more often.

We need to acknowledge and celebrate the creative tension between merchandise vision and merchandise analysis and the capability it possesses to produce tight, highly productive ranges with very high liquidation rates.

In retail, art and science genuinely belong together. One without the other won’t cut it.