Purchasing Managers, Buyers, and Purchasing Agents - What They Do

Purchasing Managers, Buyers, and Purchasing Agents Purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents buy a vast array of farm products, durable and nondurable goods, and services for companies and institutions. They attempt to get the best deal for their company—the highest quality goods and services at the lowest possible cost. They accomplish this by studying sales records and inventory levels of current stock, identifying foreign and domestic suppliers, and keeping abreast of changes affecting both the supply of, and demand for, needed products and materials. Purchasing professionals consider price, quality, availability, reliability, and technical support when choosing suppliers and merchandise. To be effective, purchasing professionals must have a working technical knowledge of the goods or services to be purchased.

There are several major types of purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents. Wholesale and retail buyers purchase goods, such as clothing or electronics, for resale. Purchasing agents buy goods and services for use by their own company or organization. Purchasing agents and buyers of farm products purchase goods such as grain, Christmas trees, and tobacco for further processing or resale. Purchasing managers usually handle more complicated purchases and may supervise a group of purchasing agents. Purchasing professionals employed by government agencies or manufacturing firms usually are called purchasing directors, managers, or agents; sometimes they are known as contract specialists. Purchasing professionals in government place solicitations for services and accept bids and offers through the Internet. Some purchasing managers, called contract or supply managers, specialize in negotiating and supervising supply contracts.

Purchasing specialists who buy finished goods for resale are employed by wholesale and retail establishments, where they commonly are known as buyers or merchandise managers. Wholesale and retail buyers are an integral part of a complex system of distribution and merchandising that caters to the vast array of consumer needs and desires. Wholesale buyers purchase goods directly from manufacturers or from other wholesale firms for resale to retail firms, commercial establishments, and other organizations. In retail firms, buyers purchase goods from wholesale firms or directly from manufacturers for resale to the public.

Buyers largely determine which products their establishment will sell. Therefore, it is essential that they have the ability to predict what will appeal to consumers. If they fail to purchase the right products for resale, buyers jeopardize the profits and reputation of their company. They keep track of inventories and sales levels, check competitors' sales activities, and watch general economic conditions to anticipate consumer buying patterns. Buyers working for large and medium-sized firms usually specialize in acquiring one or two lines of merchandise, whereas buyers working for small stores may purchase the establishment's complete inventory.

Evaluating suppliers is one of the most critical functions of a purchasing manager, buyer, or purchasing agent. Many firms now run on a lean manufacturing schedule and use just-in-time inventories so any delays in the supply chain can shut down production and potentially cost the firm its customers. Purchasing professionals use many resources to find out all they can about potential suppliers. The Internet has become an effective tool for searching catalogs, trade journals, industry and company publications, and directories. Purchasing professionals attend meetings, trade shows, and conferences to learn of new industry trends and make contacts with suppliers. They often interview prospective suppliers and visit their plants and distribution centers to assess their capabilities. It is important to make certain that the supplier is capable of delivering the desired goods or services on time, in the correct quantities, and without sacrificing quality. Once all of the necessary information on suppliers is gathered, orders are placed, and contracts are awarded to those suppliers who meet the purchaser's needs. Most of the transaction process is now automated through use of the Internet.

Purchasing professionals often work closely with other employees in a process called “team buying.” For example, before submitting an order, the team may discuss the design of custom-made products with company design engineers, the problems involving the quality of purchased goods with production supervisors, or the issues in shipping with managers in the receiving department. This additional interaction improves the quality of buying by adding different perspectives to the process.

Work Environment

Buyers and purchasing agents held about 439,000 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of buyers and purchasing agents were as follows:

  • Manufacturing - 23%
  • Government - 14%
  • Wholesale trade - 14%
  • Management of companies and enterprises - 9%
  • Retail trade - 7%

Purchasing managers held about 74,400 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of purchasing managers were as follows:

  • Manufacturing - 26%
  • Management of companies and enterprises - 16%
  • Government - 12%
  • Wholesale trade - 11%

Most purchasing managers and buyers and purchasing agents work in offices. Travel is sometimes necessary to visit suppliers or review products.

Work Schedules

Most purchasing managers and buyers and purchasing agents work full time. Overtime is common in these occupations. 

Education & Training Required

Educational requirements tend to vary with the size of the organization. Large stores and distributors prefer applicants who have completed a bachelor's degree program with a business emphasis. Many manufacturing firms put an even greater emphasis on formal training, preferring applicants with a bachelor's or master's degree in engineering, business, economics, or one of the applied sciences. A master's degree is essential for advancement to many top-level purchasing manager jobs.

Regardless of academic preparation, new employees must learn the specifics of their employer's business. Training periods vary in length, with most lasting 1 to 5 years. In manufacturing, new employees work with experienced purchasers to learn about commodities, prices, suppliers, and markets. In addition, they may be assigned to the production planning department to learn about the material requirements system and the inventory system the company uses to keep production and replenishment functions working smoothly.

In wholesale and retail establishments, most trainees begin by selling merchandise, checking invoices on material received, and keeping track of stock. As they progress, trainees are given increased buying-related responsibilities.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents must know how to use various software packages and the Internet. Other important qualities include the ability to analyze technical data in suppliers' proposals; good communication, negotiation, and mathematical skills; knowledge of supply-chain management; and the ability to perform financial analyses.

People who wish to become wholesale or retail buyers should be good at planning and decision making. They also should have an interest in merchandising. In addition, marketing skills and the ability to identify products that will sell are very important. Employers often look for leadership ability, too, because buyers spend a large portion of their time supervising assistant buyers and dealing with manufacturers' representatives and store executives.

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