Where have all the Australian buyers and planners gone?

recruitment-hiringIn late 2015, the Australian Retailers Association’s learning and development committee was holding its quarterly meeting when the retailers began discussing how difficult it is to find qualified buyers and merchandise planners.

Russell Zimmerman, executive director of the ARA, remembers the moment vividly – he had just helped a retailer nominate a foreign worker for a 457 visa, so they could take a buyer job in Australia. It was an unsettling wake-up call.

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“The retailer brought this person in because they had the skills that were required, but it was one of a number of factors that made us realise there was a skills shortage,” Zimmerman told Inside Retail Weekly.

After that meeting, the ARA ran a pilot course to gauge interest and find out what an education program for buyers and planners should entail. A formal training package was developed with Skills IQ and submitted to the Australian government for approval last year.

Zimmerman said he doesn’t know whether the ARA’s Australian Retail Institute will offer the program as a certificate or diploma, but he hopes the courses will be available by mid-2017.

Several sources within the retail industry, including a recruiting expert and a merchandising course coordinator, have confirmed the lack of skilled buyers and merchandise planners in Australia, despite the high demand. They say hiring foreign candidates, particularly from the UK, is common practice.

This stop-gap measure is now being questioned, as retailers reckon with the long-term consequences of not developing their own qualified workforce. Poor distribution of stock played a role in at least two bankruptcies in 2016: Dick Smith and Laura Ashley. But the reality is that new training programs alone won’t fix the skills shortage, and building up the next generation of buyers and planners will take time.

Ben Stranieri, a course coordinator at RMIT University, who has been involved in developing and running the associate degree in fashion textile merchandising for 20 years, told IRW that the current problem is rooted in broader societal and economic issues.

“This may sound like I’m passing the buck, but Australian secondary education, when it comes to maths, is woeful,” he said. Indeed, an international ranking of students’ maths and science proficiency saw Australia fall behind countries like Kazakhstan and Lithuania in 2016.

This reduces the pool of potential planners from the outset, particularly as merchandise planning requires strong mathematical skills. Stranieri said the first year of the RMIT course usually involves bringing students up to speed on years nine to 11 maths and building their self-esteem.

“As an educator, this topic gets me a bit riled up, especially when I see our international students completing the maths component in about a third of the time. Their maths skills are impressively higher,” he said.

A bill comes due

Stranieri also pointed to the period of rationalisation that occurred in the 1990s as one of the main reasons retailers are struggling to find experienced buyers today. In pursuit of efficiency, companies sacked employees and replaced them with predictive computer modelling. The decision may have reduced costs in the short term, but the bill has now come due.

“The problem is that the business of fashion isn’t like selling pies at the footy. You need a person with their finger on the pulse, who obviously understands trends, but also the slight difference in consumer behaviour between shoppers in a northern [Melbourne] suburb store and Chadstone [shopping centre],” Stranieri said.

“These skills take years to develop through both life experience and formal education. When those buyers were retrenched in the ‘90s, the industry lost its institutional memory. Now the industry has to start from scratch and that costs money.”

In the face of this, many retailers have simply turned to the UK and other overseas markets to fill their buying and planning positions. Speaking to IRW, an Australian designer who has worked for apparel brands in Sydney and London said the trend of hiring buyers from overseas began in earnest about four or five years ago.

According to the designer, who still works in the industry and wished to remain anonymous, Australian companies actively recruit buyers from the UK as they are perceived to be more design-focused and able to set the trends for the mass market.

Nadia Tribuzio, a senior recruitment consultant specialising in retail at Hays, made a similar observation.

“A lot of my clients who are struggling to find a merchandise planner have recruited from the UK specifically. And that’s purely because of the fashion direction over there – it’s what Australia follows,” she told IRW.

Still, this doesn’t always work to the retailer’s advantage.

“[UK designers] have amazing knowledge but they don’t understand the Australian market. It’s a different lifestyle, it’s not as fashion forward,” the designer said. “I’ve known people [from the UK] who get a great job in Australia and they run it into the ground.”

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Zimmerman, for the record, disputes the idea that Australian retailers hire foreign workers for any reason other than the skills shortage.

From cost to asset

Meanwhile, the demand for buyers and planners in Australia has not abated.

“At the end of 2016, a lot of clients were asking me if I had someone in merchandise planning in the next six to eight months, especially at the senior level,” Tribuzio said. “This year is going to be very crucial to get that planning area under control.”

And although initiatives like the ARA’s new training course are laying the groundwork to educate the next generation of buyers and planners in Australia, their effects will not be felt in 2017.

Besides, Stanieri believes university courses make up just one part of a solution that should also feature in-house apprenticeships. David Jones is one of the few retailers currently offering a structured program to train merchandise buyers and planners on the job.

The retail industry is at a cross-roads, according to Stanieri: “Ultimately, the industry has to change from seeing staff as a cost to seeing them as an asset. Bringing people in from overseas is the easiest thing to do, but you’re not developing the asset here. Long-term survival requires you to appreciate the people you’ve got.”

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