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Has Big Data Trumped the Value of a Chief Merchant?

Amid all the noise about numbers and data and how important they are to the apparel business today, it would appear that a once-mighty position is now obsolete: that of the chief merchant.

As more and more retailers turn to software programs to better understand consumer-buying behavior and ensure their assortment will appeal to the masses (and, more importantly, incite them to spend), buyers and trend forecasters are no longer as influential as they used to be.

Speaking at a panel in September during Made Fashion Week’s Spring/Summer 2016 presentations at Milk Studios in New York, Made Co-Founder Jenné Lombardo said, “I worry sometimes, when there’s an overload of data, that we stop relying on our own intuition and feelings because everything becomes so formulaic.”

She raised a good point—but with fashion getting faster and fickle shoppers losing loyalty, retailers can’t stand to risk striking out with a bad style. Just look at what happened to J.Crew’s cropped merino wool sweater, Tilly, largely blamed for the company’s sales slump earlier this year.

With that being said, have algorithms outplayed chief merchants?

“The value of the retail buyer has probably not been overlooked; however, I have witnessed a departure from a merchant mentality to a numbers game,” Dave Wendland, vice president of management consulting firm Hamacher Resource Group, said recently in an online discussion among RetailWire’s BrainTrust panel of industry experts.

“Is this good or bad?” he continued, “Well, if you look at same-store sales across most classes of trade, I guess the new-age buyer’s role is performing well. On the other hand, if you are a retailer looking to project a unique personality and provide retail excitement, I personally believe buyers should be provided leeway to trust their gut. Bringing new and differentiated products to the shelf is still one of the motivators that keep shoppers coming back time and time again. I fear if buyers only look at the numbers, the customers will become [increasingly] numb.”

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Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at RSR Research, argued that sourcing’s long supply chain has stifled innovation more than data has. “This requires big bets and big bets demand conservatism and so you’re left with a sea of sameness,” she said.

Adrian Weidmann, founder of design and analytics agency StoreStream Metrics, agreed. “Where have the retailer ‘trend smarts’ been hiding over the past five years? Merchants have been throwing digital technology at the same analog strategies for years. If the merchant trend teams were alert, they would have foreseen the need to address the digitally empowered shopper in a meaningful manner,” he said.

“We may well depend upon machine learning to make data-driven choices among available offers and product options, but the robots can’t tell us where colors or hemlines are going to go next. Neither can algorithms project consumer response to a new CPG (consumer packaged goods) category or product form,” said business management consultant James Tenser of VSN Strategies. “Human judgement still matters in merchandising. The value of digital tools is their ability to sop up the sheer volume of routine decisions, leaving the art to those composed of flesh and blood.”