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What separates a good merchant from a great one?

Many years back I was challenged with this question for myself when two unrelated events took place. One was the loss of a job, and the second was (of all things) a church sermon.

The job loss required that I prepare and organize a search for employment. In conducting my search and in going though multiple interviews, I discovered that the exceptional merchant (i.e. category manager, buyer, merchandise manager, etc.) had four defining characteristics-- in addition to the obvious business and math skills. A fifth characteristic was found in the sermon.

1) Organization

Organization skills are a key ingredient for a great merchant. I'm sure the vendor community has had many a good laugh over succumbing to the pressure of a buyer to get a deeper deal only to find that the buyer never followed through to collect it. Or how many co-op dollars are left on the table because a buyer relies on memory rather than documentation? Also time lost! Enormous amounts of work are done and then done again due to a lack of organization.

These daily intrusions are merely taken in stride for the organized professional yet become serious obstacles and time wasters for the disorganized.

2) Communication

The great merchant is a good communicator -- both oral and written. As a focal point of a retailer, the buyer or merchant must not only procure goods but communicate with just about everyone else involved in getting those products into the hands of the customer. "No surprises" are words to live by and are essential to the role.

3) Study

The great merchant is also a student of the role and does his/her homework. She shops the competition, follows the social media comments and knows her customer's preferences. He studies the industry, the trends, the articles related to his business. All critical to being a step ahead of your suppliers and delivering a remarkable,differentiated experience for the customer.

Your product manufacturers are pressured to give each major retailer they work with the best "deal." Somehow, they must put together programs to address this challenge as fairly as possible, and great merchants know where they stand by doing their homework.

4) Guts

It takes guts to make decisions. Many manufacturers have told me that more than anything else, they like a buyer who can make a decision. ("Tell me 'no' as long as you tell me something.")

In many companies, the merchandise manager may have responsibility for as much as 25-35% of a retailer's business. The bigger the retailer, the more staggering the number associated with each buy. If you don't buy enough, the heat comes down for not maximizing the sales opportunity. If you buy too much, there is even more heat as you manage markdowns or returns. takes guts to buy "fresh" product.

Now for the fifth element of a great merchant, which was served up to me by Father Dan. He told the story of a church party he had attended in which two people were asked to read a section of the bible about "the good shepherd" (in which it tells of the love and care that a faithful shepherd has for his sheep and the innocent undoubting trust that the sheep have for their shepherd.) The first man asked to read was a trained Shakespearean actor. His locution, perfect enunciation, and deep voice were mesmerizing. He read the piece aloud and brought all his skills to bare. The crowd responded with riotous applause.

The second speaker, a ministers, was certainly intimidated. This would be a tough act to follow. Still, he addressed the group and read the same section aloud. When he finished, many people were weeping rather than applauding. Although is performance skills were not at the level of the Shakespearean actor, to the minister, this was more than the reading of the part. It was his life. His mission. The actor turned to the group and said "My skills, not matter how entertaining, can only tell you about the Good Shepherd. This man is the Good Shepherd."

The bottom line here is PASSION. The truly great merchant has a passion for his calling because buying is more than a job. It is the rush of a successful strategy,

a deal that sets you apart in the marketplace or a promotion that blows away your projections. It's the passion of shopping your own in-store displays, searching competitive websites and checking out each week's deals -- even when on vacation.

Although they are becoming more of a rare breed, behind the really successful retailers, you will find some truly great merchants.

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