Shopping for a living

The gorgeous clothes and shoes beckoning to you from departmental store racks always leave you panting for more. But have you wondered how they got there in the first place?

By Melody Tan

It’s a shopper’s dream. You get to pick and choose apparel from the best brands and hottest fashion shows, and buy them with the budget your company gives you.
But retail merchandising is more than just that, says Lynn Khoo, a merchandiser from Tangs.

“In layman terms, I’m a ‘buyer’. ‘Buying’ is both an art and a science. The art involves selecting the clothes, and the science is the management of the purchases,” Lynn says.
The youthful and bubbly 32-year-old is a merchandiser for PlayLab in Tangs, one of the retail concepts that was introduced in November 2004. For the shopper whose life incorporates the fusion of music, art and the clubbing lifestyle, PlayLab caters to both trendy males and females, who are into casual, urban street chic and alternative yet utilitarian wear.

It is a unique retail concept not found in other department stores. “Usually in other stores you have a level for women’s wear and another for men’s wear. But here at PlayLab, we have an unprecedented shopping experience for both him and her that’s accessible on the same floor.” Lynn says.

Finding their identity
PlayLab prides itself for being unique and exclusive, whether in concept or the apparel that it offers. Take Lee jeans for example, just one of the many brands that Lynn brings in. It is a brand that many other departmental stores carry, but only PlayLab carries the X-line range of Lee jeans, which is from their premium range. “We want to break away from being a ‘normal’ department store, so we offer exclusive apparel, not necessarily those of mass appeal.These are offered together with established labels that are very popular, like Levi’s,” Lynn says.

She reveals that PlayLab’s unique identity not only attracts shoppers, but is also a strong selling point with the brands she buys from, as they know they are in very exclusive company. With brands like Vicious Threads, Grab, Living Doll and Industrie available at PlayLab, the concept woos its customers with a promise of exclusivity.
That is why she is very selective about what she brings in. “We find brands that are suitable for PlayLab and its shoppers, and not just any brand that is available.”

The art of buying
To decide which brands and styles to bring in, Lynn trawls the Internet and visits sites like the Worth Global Style Network (WGSN), a global online research, trend analysis and news service for the fashion and style industries. She also reads loads of local and foreign fashion and lifestyle magazines to pick up the latest trends.

“There is an art to picking the best and ‘correct’ style,” says Lynn. “A lot depends on our own judgment as well as feedback from staff and customers, and even input from designers.”

“Understanding our customers and what they want is most important. We also have to always be on the lookout for new and upcoming trends.” she says.

The science of management
The “art” part aside, merchandising also involves the “science” of planning how much to buy, how to allocate funds, pricing as well as inventory management.

“Being a buyer is not that easy and glamorous as what people may think. I have to allocate the budget according to how many brands I want to purchase from. There’s quite a lot of number crunching involved. My maths has definitely improved, compared to the past,” Lynn jokes.

Besides that, she also has to review if the brand or style is doing well after she buys it, whether to drop or continue it, and how to groom and promote it to the customers.
In fact, one of the challenges of Lynn’s job is to accept projects and tasks that are outside her normal work scope of retail merchandising.

For example, she has to work with other departments such as marketing or visual merchandising to create a look for the concept, or work on how to package and sell apparel. Two years ago, during the Tangs revamp, Lynn had to work very closely with the store designer to come up with fixtures and displays that were relevant to the concept.

“It’s like doing your own business. It’s not just a job and you take ownership over your work,” says Lynn with pride.

Developing versatile talents
Before joining Tangs as a men’s apparel buyer in January 2004, Lynn was previously a brand manager for a lingerie label. Upon joining the company, her merchandising manager decided to groom her for different types of buying, and she later became a buyer of women’s and men’s wear for PlayLab.

“I believe in being well-rounded. I’ll be happy working on any opportunity that would expand my portfolio. I would also like to help with developing more concepts, and to work together with the other departments,” she says.

It is also important for merchandisers to be versatile, as they sometimes have to double up as image consultants and “personal shoppers” for customers.

The family-oriented culture at Tangs also helped her adapt and learn. “The senior staff are all very willing to teach the younger generation of employees. They unselfishly impart their knowledge in hope that one day the younger people will be able to take over and do a good job.”

Candidates who are keen in a career in merchandising but are fresh graduates or have no relevant experience, can start their career with Tangs as Merchandising Assistant (for diploma-holders), or Management Associate (for degree-holders).

She’s loving it
Lynn is enjoying her job, despite being busy with preparations for the new Tangs store in VivoCity, which is opening this October. “Having passion is very important, you can’t go on in this job without it,” she says.

Of course, there are the travel opportunities to different places like Sydney, Melbourne, Bangkok, Las Vegas and Los Angeles to buy clothes. And, there is the enviable perk of being able to reserve and buy clothes that have not even reached store racks. “I usually wear what I bring in. That way, it would be as though I were a walking advertisement for people to buy my clothes!” laughs Lynn.

But the greatest satisfaction comes from finding and buying the right apparel that fits the trendy image of PlayLab, and from being involved in developing the presentation and promotion of the retail concept.

“It’s like seeing my baby being born. When you see people snapping the apparel up – the feeling is just indescribable,” says Lynn with a smile.

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