BURIED BY PAPERWORK, BUYERS LAMENT LOSS OF CREATIVE JUICES

Byline: David Moin

NEW YORK--Buyers are bummed out.
After a decade of takeovers, consolidations, bankruptcies and management upheavals, creativity has been lost in a sea of clerical tasks. Enthusiasm about merchandise has been supplanted by angst over numbers and anxiety over job security.
And as business continues to lag, buyers are more likely to spend their time chasing markdown money rather than fashion trends.
Those are the conclusions of numerous WWD interviews and a new attitude survey by Levy, Kerson, Aronson & Associates, which canvassed buyers nationwide.
Joy Foskett is one who's been through the retail grind but managed to escape buyer burnout.
She started as an executive trainee at Lord & Taylor in 1992, learning valuable lessons in gross margin, turns, markups, profitability and generally what it takes to make a business happen.
Foskett rose through the ranks quickly, becoming an assistant buyer in costume jewelry, associate buyer in sleepwear and then a buyer for better outerwear, leather and rainwear.
In the Christmas 1993 season, she ran 25 percent ahead on plaid flannel sleepwear. "It was a cold year. We were doing great. We brought in the right merchandise, after a huge analysis," she said. "It's a real high when you have the pencil and you can react to a positive sale."
Despite the highs, the job became tedious. "It was very numbers-oriented and report-based. It was very matrix-driven. This wasn't what I was looking for," Foskett said.
"It's important to be numbers-conscious, and the training program was undoubtedly valuable. You can't take that away. It was great to learn how to run a large business, but there was this frustration that set in. I wanted to work with product."
In July 1994, she became a buyer for better and designer outerwear and suits at the Doneger Group, a buying office working for store clients, where Foskett says, "We're in the market--every day."
There are tens of thousands of buyers, divisionals and general merchandise managers working in the nation's stores and fashion offices. They're the lifeblood of the retail industry, but--ironically--few seem to spend much time in the market.
Many of them--including Foskett, who is now 28--embarked on retail careers in their early twenties in the spirit of entrepreneurship, aspiring to find new products and launch new looks and living for the "rush" of making the sale.
That's changed.
A world of clerical and support positions has been eliminated from the retail scene to cut millions in expenses. Consequently, buyers who prefer to see, feel and sell fashion and be in the stores are immersed in sales reports and tracking markdowns, daily and weekly promotions and merchandise deliveries, and negotiating returns. And with centralized buying, they're handling larger orders and are less apt to take risks.
Such burdens, some believe, have taken the soul out of retailing.
"This is a very unhappy camp," said Robert Kerson, principal of Levy, Kerson, Aronson & Associates, a retail search and consulting firm. "Buyers are spending more time than ever on administrative and financial issues. There's a high degree of frustration in not being able to spend time on creating product, which they believe is what gets the job done.
"On average, buyers work 50-hour weeks and spend 30 hours on administrative tasks. We've got to find ways to cut that in half. It's not the complete answer as to why business is in the doldrums, but we believe it's a major part of it."
Last April, Kerson mailed 1,500 questionnaires to buyers and merchandisers at department stores, discounters and specialty chains nationwide to gauge job satisfaction.
He sought anonymous responses to such questions as:
What are their chances of advancement?
Compensation: Is the job worth it?
Would they choose retail again if they started their careers over?
Is there a sense of loyalty to their employers?
How is time spent on the job?
erson received an 18 percent response rate and discovered that morale was far lower than he expected.
Buyers considered themselves "bean counters" or "glorified accountants," noting that they used to shop U.S. and overseas markets but now just do two-day "fly-bys."
"They're predominately unhappy, unfulfilled, restless...disenchanted with their jobs and--perhaps most significantly--fired up to defect from their companies or out of American retailing," Kerson said. "Nearly two-thirds said the likelihood of choosing retailing again as a career has withered."
Discontent is keeping turnover high, with large department store chains experiencing around 15 percent annual departure rates among assistant buyers and buyers, according to various retail sources. Turnover at higher rungs, where executives are generally older and more settled in careers, is lower.
One company that's trying to attack the problem is Limited Inc.
Arnold Kanarick, Limited's executive vice president and director of human resources, agreed there's mass unrest in the industry, but added, "At The Limited, it has less to do with the profession and more to do with not feeling like winners," suggesting that since apparel sales have slumped in the last few years, so has self-esteem.
Limited's Victoria's Secret Stores reportedly suffered about a 20 percent departure rate in the early Nineties but has reduced the hemorrhaging to under 10 percent.
Limited executives are said to maintain grueling schedules. "Many buyers at the Limited may have felt it was a great place for a couple of years, but not to hang your hat on forever," said a Limited source.
Kanarick said a survey last year of 8,000 Victoria's Secret employees disputed such notions about the company and found "Workers are very positive about the company, quality of work, comfortable with the hours, degree of supervision, and loved the employee discount. But they were unhappy with issues regarding training and development and career growth."
The company now conducts quarterly meetings with human resource officials and Leslie Wexner, Limited's chairman, to discuss such concerns. Among other steps, a formal succession planning system was developed where everybody at the buyer level and above has a three-page profile, assessing career potential, strengths and leadership skills. It includes a development plan, with assigned mentors.
"There is a momentum as a result of our new commitment to these issues," Kanarick says.
Elsewhere, buyers feel stymied and lack job security.
At the bankrupt Woodward & Lothrop, which last week announced a deal to be sold to a group led by Federated Department Stores, the atmosphere has been tense all year.
"I have to manage the open-to-buy so tightly," said one associate buyer before the deal was announced. "We're not selling anything, so you can't buy anything new. Ten years ago, it was a booming business. Now Woodie's is having more bad days than good days. There are no orders to process. Market trips are less frequent.
"There's a lot of pressure that you're going to lose your job. There's no motivation at all. You don't know from one day to another what's going to happen. They're starting to cut back....They don't inform us of anything but want us to focus on the business. We're still human beings. We need to know."
After 14 years, Martha Broecker got off the roller coaster of retailing even though it was her "childhood dream" to be a buyer. On June 19, she joined Fossil, a watch and accessory manufacturer in Dallas, as division manager involved in new business development. Her previous job at Woolworth's Accessory Lady division--developing gifts, hosiery and apparel, including embellished sweaters and T-shirts--was eliminated in February "out of the blue," she said. Her department was downsized and her responsibilities allocated to three others.
The shock, she said, "forced me to reevaluate my retail career." She explained, "I didn't want to go through another situation where I could be potentially laid off. Fossil is a healthy organization and extremely entrepreneurial. It did $161 million in sales in 1994 versus $105 million in 1993."
As an economics major at Randolph Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Va., Broecker started her career by creating an internship at Thalhimers to do special events and fashion shows for course credit. She even did some modeling at local stores.
She joined the Macy's training program in 1982 in New York, rose to group manager supervising 10 sales managers in Roosevelt Field and in 1986 launched Fast Forward, a 1,500-square-foot high-end innovative electronics shop inside Macy's, modeled after Sharper Image. From Herald Square, the shop was rolled out to all branches.
"It was a hot category and a very exciting period," she recalled.
After Bamberger's folded into Macy's, she moved into jewelry and opened another in-store shop for designer and trend jewelry, called Signatures of Style, including merchandise from Carolee, Patti Horn and Karl Lagerfeld.
As business toughened, those shops were integrated into other areas and categories believed to be more productive at the time.
She became a Macy's store manager in Hunt Valley, Md., a $38 million branch, which closed when Macy's had to cut costs. She joined Accessory Lady in July 1992. "I wanted to go back into product development, buying and merchandising and enter the specialty store market."
Times have changed, observed Broecker.
"In the Eighties, a buyer was able to put a personal stamp on a business. The goal was to be hot, different from the competition and find new items to express yourself. You had the time to see every [resource] that called you. In electronics, I sourced every market to come up with my mix. I had items that looked great, didn't get the sell-through, but gave my department that edge. You knew the core businesses would pay for those outreach businesses. You struck a balance."
In the Nineties, said Broecker, "You have to work hard at consensus building. I believe in it, but the problem is you're always finding yourself trying to justify and validate your point of view. You're always in meetings, bouncing ideas off people, forming alliances between planners and the distribution department and other buyers so you can pull it together. It reduces the risk of any individual taking responsibility. It takes longer, and you can miss a trend in the process."
"In the good old days, the life of the buyer was relatively simple," said Geoffrey Lurie, president of CDL Group, a consulting firm specializing in turnarounds. "Seasons were defined. December 26 was the magic date for markdowns. Sales signs went up and the off-price season started. Clearly, there was a shopping pattern, and a good buyer was much more in control of a department."
Now, price promoting is perpetual, customers habitually shop off-price and there's enormous pressure to keep inventory down, increase turns and buy closer to the season, Lurie said, adding, "There's a very nervous management in retail chains. Buyers who used to be artists are being driven by ROIs [return on investments]."
There are, however, some positive outgrowths of the new financial order.
Buyers must learn to "respect capital and impress vendors that the store is credit-worthy, need to get controllers to send statements, use less capital, decide which vendors will get which letters of credit, reduce inventory and increase turns."
He also said buyers are more involved in logistics. "Their efforts to track down goods and expedite shipments help determine if vendors are efficient and responsive."
Through high technology MIS systems, management can "micromanage" and peer into a buyer's assortments and do a lot of second-guessing.For buyers, it's a new pressure," Lurie noted.
Doneger's Foskett said her days of doing financial reports at Lord & Taylor involved looking at the flash sheets on yesterday's business, taking markdowns and doing things to pump more goods onto the floor in areas that were selling. She also tracked goods to see where they were in the pipeline, and, on some days, negotiated returns.
Her colleague at Doneger, Kathy Rozewski, a buyer of infants' and toddlers', had a similar experience, where she felt "consumed by the numbers." Employed at Mothercare from 1988 to 1993, she saw the chain dwindle from 200 stores to around 100 and become acquired by Baine Capital.
"You could step out on a limb with the resource structure, and you could become a hero or not. Creativity was very much a part of it." But after the takeover, "We were no longer merchants. We could have been selling bags of potatoes."
Dottie Voynick, a former Macy's buyer, now with the Museum Co. chain, said, "I woke up one morning and found that Macy's was a different place."
She started her career in 1974 in the Bamberger's executive training squad, and rose to become a Macy's dress buyer. "It was wonderful for 12 years and it changed literally overnight with the leveraged buyout. It used to be people-oriented. We had freedom of expression and the tools to run a business, but people became afraid about their jobs. It was very political. Mentors were leaving. There were more financial demands, in terms of dollars and cents, not your assortment. Vendor relationships were always cherished, but now we had to cut out people. We could be bullies."
She moved to Virginia Specialty Stores for about a year and a half and became disenchanted once again. "I really didn't care if some lady in the South had black pants to wear."
She moved to Liz Claiborne Retail as a buyer but left after more than five years, after the founders left and the company's personality changed. She, too, wanted out. "It was too competitive and too emotional. I thought I'd never go back to retailing again."
Six months ago, she joined the Museum Co., buying stationery, games and puzzles, textiles, T-shirts, ties and scarves.
"Business is good, the market is much more genteel and polite," Voynick said. "It's not Seventh Avenue."

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