When I was little, my mom owned her own clothing store. I loved to spend time there, running my tiny hands along the different fabrics and, of course, hiding in between the racks. Window shopping became my favorite pastime, and it’s safe to say I was bitten by the shopping bug young. One day, at T.J. Maxx, I found a pair of heels I loved (yes, at 10 years old) and my mom said we could tuck them away at the back of the shelf to grab later if I still “needed” them. Spoiler alert - they were not there when we returned, and I may or may not have cried.
The point is, I was just a child when I fell in love with the “treasure hunt” of shopping. Little did I know that the “treasure hunt” was a highly curated and thought out experience based on stacks and stacks of numbers. Well, I know that now because I eventually went into retail planning for my career. Yet despite my firsthand experience growing up in a retail environment, my first job in retail planning came with a lot of surprises in store (pun, intended?). Here are four of the biggest ones I learned once the deep dark secrets behind the shelves of retail finally exposed themselves.
The Retail Planning Process
- There are a ton of people working to get each product in front of you.
I think most people assume that a clothing store owner flips through a digital catalog and handpicks the cutest finds, or maybe has a dedicated buyer who does the honors. While the owner and buyer(s) do indeed have influence over styles and orders, there are so many people involved in getting each product to the store that it’s mind-boggling.
There are the manufacturers (typically overseas), there are merchants, planners, allocators, distribution centers, store managers, merchandisers, marketers - and more. They all work together to create an experience for you, and draw you toward that $19.99 pair of heels that you don’t really need. Nothing in retail happens by accident.
- The product you’re looking at now was selected months ago.
I’m sure most people imagine that there’s a good amount of planning that goes into retail, simply because of inventory and logistics. But, many don’t realize quite how much planning is involved. Even with something like deciding which products end up on the shelves you browse takes place months and months (and today, with supply chain woes, often times a full year) beforehand.
In fact, it often looks something like this. A group of merchandising masterminds sit around a big table (usually with expensive salads) and brainstorm the “it looks'' for the coming year. You might think such decisions are based on runway trends, seasonal needs, fashion insights and good old-fashioned instincts, right? Someone handpicked those shoes for you to obsess over based on their in-depth industry knowledge and keen eye for style. How could she be so right?!
- That one pair of heels is associated with a ton of numbers.
While those selections were maybe made with some of the aforementioned factors in mind, honestly? They were mostly decided based on numbers. Here’s how it works. Every Monday as a retail planner, I’d receive a stack of paper that looked like it took out an acre of trees. I’d flip through page after page of metrics including terms like turn, average ticket, average store sales, on order - you name it.
All of this existed to try to help us figure out why the black and white heels with the black aglet sold 25% more than the black and white heels with the slightly-lighter-black aglet. I kid you not. This process was infuriating, but also mesmerizing and addicting. Why did someone want that pair over the others? I just had to know.
- Those numbers, in most cases, are an absolutely terrifying, jumbled mess.
Trying to find out the “why” behind all those metrics was nearly impossible. The numbers left my head spinning, trying to connect the dots between facts and figures spread over an acre of paper. And don’t get me started about transferring all that information into Excel. Even if I managed to somehow pull that off without the spreadsheet (aptly named “adsjgasdklg;”) crashing, then I had to pretend like I knew how to use V-Lookup or macros or beg the one girl on our team who did know to help me.
It was exhausting and frustrating, to say the least. I had oceans of data and no way to use it all. I always shrugged and convinced myself the few data points I could interpret were good enough and that my intuition could fill in the blanks. But of course, I knew deep down that somehow some way these numbers had to be put to better use.
What I learned by joining Toolio
Fast-forward to today, being a bona fide retail planning aficionado - and I know how to do this. Like with most industries that desperately needed organization and data interpretation, retail planning software has made all the difference. Now I get to help people make better decisions by spreading the Toolio message far and wide. What I’ve learned about sales at a SaaS company can now fill a different kind of book, but that’s an article for another day.
In Closing: Retail Planning Career Lessons
The key takeaway here? Ten-year-old me and those heels I just had to have did not meet by chance in T.J. Maxx that one fateful day. There were plenty of people and processes behind the scenes, pulling the strings and making strategic choices to boost sales. And that, my friends, is the belly of the beast in the retail industry.