It’s not yet Halloween, but purchasing manager Paula Dunbar is already thinking ahead to Valentine’s Day. As retail buyer for Party Favors, a Brookline, gift and novelty store, she’s keeping her eye on the supply of black light strips, which are running low, while still forecasting toward Feb. 14, and what might be hot for this sentimental holiday. She’s predicting that the cupcake motif – sweet, sexy, and cute – will continue to be a top seller, and she’s placing orders for cupcake band-aids, lip balm, floss, stickers, and key chains. “It’s all about knowing our customers and what they want to buy, as well as predicting trends,” said Dunbar, 32.
Merchandising professionals like Dunbar know that there’s a fine line between keeping too much inventory and not enough, retailing savvy that is often gained only through experience. Dunbar still winces when she remembers the time she ordered a quantity of four dozen candles, not realizing that she was requesting 4,800 of them. And she’s still learning, even today, 13 years later, as she watches the two grosses of webbing dwindle down to 70 pieces, making it likely that the decorative item will probably run out before Oct. 31. And then there are price points to consider, as ordering in higher quantities offers low cost per item. “A lot more goes into supplying a store than people realize,” said Dunbar, who meets with sales reps and evaluates samples as regularly perusing trade magazines and attending gift shows.
Nearly half of purchasing managers in the nation work for wholesale trade or manufacturing operations, with 10 percent employed at retail establishments such as Dunbar. Some purchasing agents are college graduates, while others, like Dunbar, work their way up to the position. She began by selling merchandise at Party Favors then gradually was given more responsibilities, such as checking invoices on products received, keeping track of stock, then buying-related duties. Dunbar worked as a travel agent and bartender, but kept returning to the Brookline store, finding that she really enjoyed the idea of novelty and party goods. “It’s a happy concept, helping people celebrate and have fun,” said Dunbar.
Q: What sort of special requests do you get from customers?
A: We have so-called “pink slips” or special request forms that our clientele can fill out. They’ll ask for anything from certain color napkins, such as brown and pink, or a specific stationary brand, such as Cranes. One customer requested miniature picture frames, which we previously carried. I’m still searching for those, and looking into why we stopped offering those.
Q: What are some big sellers lately?
A: Melamine is big, just as an example. For the fourth quarter, we just ordered bowls, platters, and children’s plates from a California company called Le Cadeaux, and they have really pretty designs on them. This company carries a higher quality of melamine. Glee, the television show, is also going to be popular for Christmas, and one line, Techno Tats, offers a bunch of Glee stickers to decorate your laptop or cell phone.
Q: What’s your favorite part of your job?
A: I love walking around the store and seeing what I ordered that sold, whether it’s kids gifts and puzzles, or lunch boxes, games, and cards.
Q: Is your idea hat always on even when you’re off work?
A: Yes, I was up in New Hampshire with my husband and daughter and wandered into a cute little gift shop. The merchandising really inspired me and I jotted down some thoughts in a notebook. While I was there, I bought a roll of very pretty, glittery wrapping paper, brought it back, and looked up the company name. So my brain is always working.
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