Interview with Ricki Rubin, Retail Buyer for Gump’s, Macy’s & More

Ricki Rubin

Expert Interview: Ricki Rubin, Buyer, Gump's (Wendy Foster, Restoration Hardware, Macy's)

What do retail buyer’s look for?  How do they evaluate products and new brands? How do they like to be approached by  vendors? What information should you as a seller be prepared with prior to contacting a buyer?  If you’ve ever wanted the answer to these questions,  then watch this interview with Ricki Rubin, an expert retail buyer with over 15 years of experience.

Photographer Credit: Lauri Levenfeld, Zoom Photography, San Francisco, CA

READ the Transcript

Rachel: Hi, I’m Rachel Olsen, founder of Best Mom Products, where mompreneurs share their adventures in business. Today I’m talking with Ricki Rubin, buyer for Gump’s retail store. Ricki has over ten years of buying experience for Gump’s, Wendy Foster, Restoration Hardware, and Macy’s. Today she’ll share with us her point of view on the buyer/seller relationship, and tips on getting your product into retail stores.

Hi, Ricki. Welcome. Ricki, what is your main responsibility as a buyer?

Ricki: My main responsibility is to establish a strong assortment that’s compelling, new, and fresh, according to open to buy guidelines and seasonal deadlines and requirements.

Rachel: What are open-to-buy guidelines? What does that mean?

Ricki: As a buyer, we plan fiscally by month. We plan our receipt flow, how much we’re going to spend. We plan how much we expect to do in sales, and how much we anticipate marking down, based on employee sales or trade discounts or markdown markdowns-when a product goes to clearance-because we ultimately, as buyers, manage a business. So it’s essentially a business plan, and it flows, and every month end, the numbers roll. If we yield higher sales, it affects do we bring in more receipts the next month. It really helps us as the matrix to build the business.

Rachel: If you’re going from month to month, and you’re looking at how much money you have to spend, how do you decide what you’re going to bring in?

Ricki: It all depends. Every store is different. If I think about a home store, and I think about my experiences at Restoration Hardware and Gump’s, it’s about a theme in the store. We have a set floor installation date. We work with our visual directors, and build a theme and an overall color scheme and story, that commences at a certain point in time and elapses for, usually, six weeks. And not every item in a store falls into a theme, but it’s really a map to create a point of view in the store and keep things consistent.

Rachel: Can you give an example of that? Is that seasonal . . . or holiday?

Ricki: For example, at Gump’s, we did this rising Jaipur theme in the store. It started in July, and it was all about India, and we had a certain color palette, a lot of jewel tones, a lot of golds. It was a great guideline to know what to look for. However, the store isn’t completely eccentric on that installation because there’s other things going on in this particular business and at Restoration Hardware.
That store, when I was there, we definitely followed along a rotation or a floor set. So maybe our color scheme was a lot of blues and a lot of yellows for summer, and we found a lot of products that fit within that world.

Rachel: As you’re bringing these things in and you’re going through the six week rotation, how can somebody who’s trying to sell into your store be aware of that? Is that something that you’re very- that information something you’re very forthright with? Do you know what’s coming up for an entire year? How far in advance do they plan these installations?

Ricki: Well, it definitely depends on the store, and not every store, again, operates on an installation calendar. Because I also do clothing and apparel, we don’t follow that cadence. It’s just mindful, depending on the type of product that the wholesaler or the owner of the business, what kind of product and how that would translate into what a certain retailer is doing.
When it comes to clothing and baby, which I also have done and currently do, we basically go off a color palette and a seasonal flow. Right now I’m looking at Spring products. I’m done with 2012; I wrapped it up. I see trends in the marketplace and then I go after, strongly, certain vendors or designers that are compelling.

Rachel: What’s the best way for somebody who wants to get their product line in front of you-I’m saying you, but I mean, in front of buyers. What is the best approach that they should take based on everything that you’ve told us and have experienced?

Ricki: If it’s somebody that’s new and has developed their own product, I think that knowledge is power. The most important thing is, of course, to establish, roughly, what is their cost price. What are the dimensions? What is the wholesale price? What’s the lead time to produce this product and deliver it in store? The buyer wants to feel secure, knowing they can count on that because we plan fiscally, which is established on the theme; there’s so much in financial planning.
And I think that it’s also important to reveal terms. How do I require getting paid? Am I okay with, this is a new retailer? Can I do in that 30? Or do I always require cash on delivery because I’m very new and I’m just getting established? But most critical is to understand when you can deliver, and how much your product costs.

Rachel: What is the best form of communication to get a buyer’s attention? And who’s responsible for paying for samples? Obviously, they send a sample. How often should they follow up with you? What’s the best way to approach you from a communication standpoint?

Ricki: I can say the first thing not to do is Mondays when the buyers are getting back from their weekend, and reviewing the week prior, which is the fiscal week that ends on Saturday. There’s a lot of analysis going on and a lot of catch up, and that’s critical time for reporting and assessing business, and then that helps lead to making decisions. So I would just avoid the Monday, and let the buyer get a sense of what’s happening in his or her business.
I think the best time is starting Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Not first thing in the morning, either. Because we all read our emails and deal with fires. Anytime after 10:00, I think, is appropriate. Most ideally, an email with a picture involved with all the information: wholesale price, style number, description of the product, why it’s compelling.
I think the best thing that I get are line sheets. But I understand that some people are new to the business and dealing with buyers. But that is my biggest advice is to establish a line sheet, which covers an image, dimensions, wholesale price, what the vendor style number is. Because I find it a waste of time, or pulling teeth sometimes, to chase basic information down when I could simply have it from the get go. Because we’re so busy and it cuts back on a lot of back and forth on emails. And then, the buyer could essentially lose interest if it’s such a chase to get the information.

Rachel: Basically, make it easy for you. They want to get their product into your store. They should come prepared with the materials that they need from the start. They’re well organized and they have a line sheet. If they do all of these things and you’re interested in the product, do you ask for a sample, or is it protocol for them to provide a sample? What is the process?

Ricki: If this is someone that’s not established and it’s an emerging line or an emerging item idea, I think that the most considerate thing to do, if the designer wholesaler wants to sell to this retailer, is to suggest providing a sample. Even if they want it shipped back, they should pay for shipping there and provide a shipping label to return it if they need it back, or just to ship it complimentary for the buyer to keep and consider. Eventually, if we carry that item and go forward with it, we’ll put it into stock.

Rachel: What if you’re not interested in a product? How do you usually handle that?

Ricki: I am so appreciative of someone going through the effort to send me a sample and take the time, and I respect that they have sincere desires to be in the store, that I definitely get right back to them. Sometimes it’s even a phone call, or an email, depending. If I don’t feel it’s a fit based on style or point of view, I’m very honest, and sometimes I offer a different retailer as an alternative.

Rachel: What is your decision-making process? If you have it, how long would you hold on to it for, to decide if it’s a good fit or not? Do you know right away when you get a product, like, wow, that’s great. Or are you thinking for future installations, like, wow, we’re going to be doing this theme later in the year, it might be a better fit for that time? Or, what’s the word if it’s not an installation; it’s just reoccurring . . . you tell me.

Ricki: Installation, I . . .

Rachel: Maybe I’m stuck on that word. Sorry.

Ricki: Installation is unique to where I’m currently at. I would say floor change, or if it’s apparel or baby, it’s just flow.

Rachel: Flow. Okay. That’s the word I was looking for.

Ricki: Merchandise flow. It’s funny because there’s no clear-cut answer at all. It’s relative to the type of retailer it is. But when it comes to apparel and baby, I really operate by is this unique, does this look like anything else, will it cannibalize anything else, is this a great addition, do I believe in it? And I do need to know is this something that’s reorderable. How long will it take to get it? Do I have to pay upfront?
There’s just a few things. It could be something I bring in right away because my business is strong, and I need new merchandise. Or, right now, for example, I’ve really wrapped up 2012 in apparel, for instance. I’m looking at Spring products, and if it’s compelling, and it hangs with other things that I’m finding, then absolutely I’d want to pursue it and lock it down.

Rachel: You mentioned payment a little bit. What is an incentive to get somebody, if it’s a new, up-and-coming designer or wholesaler, and they have a product that they don’t feel like they can afford to wait 30 days to be paid, what are some incentives they can provide to you, saying, you know what, I’m going to need payment upfront, but I can do this?

Ricki: Oh, a discount.

Rachel: Okay.

Ricki: That speaks volumes.

Rachel: Okay. It’s . . . go ahead.

Ricki: Because the intent, as a buyer as well, is we all have margin requirements because every single retailer ends up marking something down. And it’s all relative to at the end of the day, how much they are marking down, and that’s what we’d like to avoid. That eats at our profits, so we intentionally try to find items that hopefully won’t go on sale, or at least have a strong margin percentage, so then we can protect our profitability at the end of the season.

Rachel: What percentage discount do you feel is reasonable?

Ricki: In all fairness, I would say, okay, how many units am I buying? It is a partnership and it needs to be fair for both parties. For example, recently I bought a lot of beautiful leather goods from a certain vendor, and because I was a certain volume, he granted me a 20% discount, which is exceptional. However, recently I paid upfront for some apparel, and I was happy with a 3% discount. It’s very relative, but for a new, new business, I think, the most courtesy [sic] thing to do is to offer a 5% discount. because the margin for the retailer is boosted by that.

Rachel: How far in advance are trends determined?

Ricki: It all depends on, of course, home versus apparel. I think there’s different cadences and different time frames. But, for apparel, I’m heading into fashion week in New York, and so the trends are pretty much established with the runway shows that happen one to two weeks prior to the real trade show activity.
I’m going for the trade shows, and not the fashion shows, for my business trip. I will read about it in Women’s Wear Daily. I’ll read about it in blogs because there’s a lot of editors and writers conveying what they’ve seen on the runways, and there’s a lot of overlap going on. It’s paramount once you get to the trade shows you do see those colors popping all over the place.
Crochet is something I saw a lot recently for a trade show, so it was an indication that that’s huge for Spring. There’s lots of fabrication, a lot of fit silhouette and color scheme consistencies that are across all lines, from high- to low-price points.

Rachel: How do you test a product? How do you promote it then, if it’s not well-known from prior?

Ricki: In my current job, and in my previous job, I did a lot of product trainings. Once I have a few things, or even one product, I’ll hold a sales associate meeting before the store opens-or after the store closes, depending on the store, in my experience-and really go into it. Sometimes I have the actual designer or the person representing the product come in and really share the most appropriate product knowledge out there, or I will learn it from them and convey it.
I think product knowledge is huge. It pays off. If the sales associates are behind your product, and they can give some interesting facts and romance it, then it’s compelling to the customer, and they’ll buy it.

Rachel: How do customers walk through a store?

Ricki: The first thing they do is they walk in and look directly in front of them. So I’m hoping in every other store as well, that all the new [inaudible 14:11] is in the very front of store. Then, as time goes by, the items trickle their way towards the back. The next thing the customer does is they turn to the right, so the front, center, and to the right is the most prime real estate.

Rachel: Okay. Interesting. Do sellers who are selling into the store have any negotiation of where their product goes, or you as the buyer determines all of that?

Ricki: Well, I can’t speak for department stores. When I was at Macy’s, there was a lot more decision making with brands that were so powerful and influential in the store. I haven’t been in that realm in, I think, almost eight to ten years, but being in the last two experiences, it’s up to the store.

Rachel: Okay.

Ricki: Buying the merchandise, investing in the purchases, they have every right to decide where the product goes.

Rachel: Your experience with sales reps . . .

Ricki: There are pros and cons. I think that the most important thing is that the sales rep-it’s kind of funny-they should act like the owner of the company, and the owner of the company should act like the sales rep. Because there needs to be a separation of the emotional side when selling to the buyer, and then the sales rep needs to act like they are fully responsible and are completely passionate about what they’re selling. If there is a way to merge the two, that’s the ideal situation.
There’s actually a lot of sales reps that behave like that, and I’m grateful that I work with. I think the most frustrating is if I work with certain creative types that represent their product, and they don’t have the business plan or approach, so it doesn’t become a clean cut interaction, and it takes a few steps with the constant emails or a lot more time invested. However, it could be fully enjoyable because they’re likeable personalities, but as far as getting business done when someone has a busy job . . .

Rachel: What advice do you have for somebody who’s looking to hire a sales rep to get into retail stores?

Ricki: I would say to make sure that this sales rep is willing to work really hard, hit the road, take the ball running. If they want to say, “Hey, I think we should be in this trade show in Los Angeles. Or, we haven’t reached out to the East Coast,” and find a way to establish a relationship and a network to represent the line in a place that attracts a lot of buyers.
I would look for someone willing, who has the time and energy to bounce around by travel. And they’re willing to carry if these things are heavy, they’re strong and able and willing to carry things and transport them to even stores locally and stores in Southern California from Northern California. There’s sales reps that I admire, that have energy and desire to make it happen.
If they’re representing a home accessories or furniture line, it’s all about a glossy tear sheet, with all the dimensions, a clear cut image, the ability to say these are available in the show room, a way to see it in real life, but a very good representation of what they represent.

Rachel: Okay. Let me ask you. How is a look book different from a line sheet?

Ricki: It’s pretty much the same. A line sheet, I would say, is just a more common term for things that are clothing or small items. And there’s tear sheets. Tear sheets are look books for home collections and home furniture. It’s something that I experience and see because it needs to be romanced, and they’re huge products.

Rachel: Let me ask you, how many sales reps or individuals, designers, do you usually manage at one time? Is it different from store to store?

Ricki: Yes. Right now I manage, probably, hundreds.

Rachel: Okay.

Ricki: My last job I probably managed maybe 150. But Restoration Hardware has very-at the time, they’ve changed a lot since I’ve been there-but there was a lot of mostly in-house design, so they source and have product development as their main thing. Then Macy’s, I managed a bunch of-or not a bunch-very few huge volume vendors. It’s very unique.

Rachel: In all of your experience, and I know you’ve done both home and apparel and different things, what are some of the top trade shows that you find have been exceptional in finding really good products?

Ricki: I would say, if it’s apparel, then I think Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and New York are great, domestically. Depending on where this person lives that’s representing their line, and if they’re starting from the beginning, then they should attend the closest one in proximity.

Rachel: And what are they called? What kind of trade shows are they called?

Ricki: There’s so many, so it depends on-you should marry up your item with the overall sense of the trade show, so it would take some good research. Of course, clothing if it’s a mainstream, or even a unique line but that’s not super overpriced. There’s shows like Moda, ENK.
If you have a real, amazing, contemporary, edgy line that your ultimate goal is to sell to Barney’s, I would say go to Designers and Agents. If you have a great home decor product or a great accessories product, even a New York gift show is a great avenue for this. It all really depends, it’s very specific to the type of product that someone is selling.

Rachel: Thank you, Ricki. I so appreciate having you, and you taking the time out of your busy schedule to do this on a Sunday morning.

Ricki: Any time . . .

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