Two people examine a store window display featuring hot pink sling backs by Manolo Blahnik, a bejeweled clutch by Prada, and a floral print silk scarf by Armani. On the right stands the shopper. To her eye, it’s an inviting collection, suggesting a special night on the town or everyday elegance ala Carrie Bradshaw. On the left, a buyer for a major department store. His eye is more critical as he considers the price points for the items, selling trends for similar pieces at other stores, and how the recession will influence shoppers’ habits on such non-essential items.

For those in the luxury retail business, the day-to-day demands of the job are far from luxurious. From analyzing sales spreadsheets to weighing store assortment needs against budgets, it’s a challenging position with fierce competition, requiring much more than a simple passion for the product. For students that aspire to join the ranks of professionals building luxury brands like Lexus and Gucci, an education from the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School is a great place to start. Mays graduates are working in a number of capacities, from buyers to analysts for retailers and brands such as, Macy’s, Nordstrom, and BCBG. Their insider perspective on the world of luxury is not what you might expect.

A day in the life

Though Jennifer Pressley ’04 deals daily with millions of dollars worth of diamonds and other precious gems, she’s strikingly down to earth about her position as a direct inventory analyst in JCPenney’s fine jewelry department. “The product doesn’t matter. No matter what you’re selling, it’s all about sales versus inventory,” she says. Pressley is one of three analysts charged with evaluating key elements of the business, such as pricing, assortment, and placement. Her recommendations impact offerings in JCPenney’s almost 1,100 stores nationwide.

Beyond examining sales from previous quarters, Pressley also keeps a close eye on the news and pop culture trends. “It’s a dynamic environment. You’re always preparing for the next thing,” she says. Since planning starts three to six months in advance of when an item hits store shelves, Pressley says it can be tricky to predict what’s going to be popular—and more importantly right now, what the economy will look like down the road and how that will impact sales.

Jamie Pyles ’08, an assistant buyer for jewelry in Macy’s central division stores (Midwest and Southern stores in eight states), agrees with Pressley. “It’s not as glamorous as it seems…the majority of the job is numbers,” she says, noting that 99 percent of her job involves sitting at her desk and managing Excel spreadsheets. “I have six or seven spreadsheets open within ten minutes of being in my office everyday,” she says. All that data is used to make projections about what will sell and for how much. Though not always exciting, Pyles says the work is important, as she tracks sales numbers to help determine promotional prices, weighing those prices against the budget to see if the chain can afford a promotion.

When she’s not pouring over the figures, Pyles says that she’s talking to vendors and regional merchandise managers, making sure that shipments are on time and contain what they are supposed to. If she has a moment of spare time, she does research, looking at celebrity fashion trends in publications like People Style Watch.

Pyles and Pressley both gave the same example of how public figures directly impact store assortment: Michelle Obama’s gumball-sized faux pearls.  Both said that sales of pearls are up since the first-lady began wearing them, and that vendors have rushed to respond, adding more and larger pearl jewelry to their collections.

Learning the ropes

An internship with Dolce & Gabbana in New York City—what could be more glamorous? That’s what Kyla Phung ’10 thought when she was offered the job last summer, but she quickly discovered that the life of an intern is far from sensational, and that even in high fashion, success is about working long and hard, not about looking fabulous.

While in New York, Phung learned all of the details involved in marketing the ritzy D&G wares, from coordinating trunk shows, to analyzing sales tracking data, to visiting stores and talking to managers on the selling floor. And yes, there were always models around and she admits to “playing with clothes a lot,” but really, it was your typical office environment, she says. Less The Devil Wears Prada and more Office Space. Much of her job involved creating PowerPoint presentations about new products for use in training store salespeople.

Lest you think luxury retail is only for women, meet Taylor Garrett ’09, who will soon graduate with a certificate in retail along with his Mays marketing degree. Defying the feminine retail stereotype, he wears an A&M power-lifting shirt and sports some ink on his massive bicep. “There’s a misconception about what retail involves,” he said. Retail isn’t about standing behind the counter at a store in the mall and luxury isn’t a woman’s market, he says. The luxury business also about guys washing cars and getting dirty in a service shop. That’s what he discovered last summer in a 12-week internship program with Sewell Automotive, the Texas-based purveyor of high-end car brands such as Cadillac, Hummer, and Infiniti. He experienced a full rotation through a dealership in Fort Worth, from oil changes to sales. “The experience helped me to understand how everything in a business is tied together,” he said.

Garrett says that when you’re selling $60,000 cars, developing a relationship with the customer is key. Sending birthday cards and taking time to visit with former customers over a cup of coffee while their car is being washed at the dealership for free is all part of keeping the customer for life.  “You want them to feel important,” he said.

And because there is a scarcity of men entering retail, there are plenty of opportunities, says Garrett, citing the experience he had at the 2008 Retailing Summit, hosted in Dallas by the Center for Retailing Studies. As one of the only male students to attend, he stood out to potential employers, most of whom were interested in adding diversity to their ranks.

Economic concerns

One thing that’s inescapable in today “s retail environment is the impact of the global recession. In the past 12 months, hundreds of stores have gone under and the auto industry is reeling from the steep fall off of American demand for new cars. Still, Garrett says he’s not worried about his job offer from Sewell, which will have him selling cars in the Fort Worth area starting this summer. “The people that can afford to buy these kinds of cars haven’t been hurt that badly by the economy,” he says.

It was a different story from Pyles and Pressley, both of whom noted that sales in their departments have slowed significantly. “Jewelry isn’t a need…it’s probably one of the first things people stop buying,” said Pressley. “We’ve had to become more price sensitive.” JCPenney is responding by offering more silver jewelry, as the price of gold has gone up, as well as bigger sales events. Pressley says they’re also more focused on more efficient inventory to sales ratios, as overstock means lost revenues. Despite that, she says she’s confident that her company and division will come through the recession well.

Pyles’ knowledge of the recession’s impact is more intimate: it’s cost her her job. Macy’s is streamlining its operation, so that instead of four regional purchasing offices, there will be only one (in New York City) for the nation. Her job in the Atlanta office ended shortly after she was interviewed for this article. Pyles says it’s a smart move for the company and believes it will be a huge cost savings for them, even though it’s painful in the short term.

Pyles will soon start a new position as a buyer for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. Though it’s not in retail, Pyles says the jobs are similar in many ways. “It will still be in supply chain and procurement function of business, just in a much different industry.”

Phung says that last summer as the recession was becoming apparent, Dolce & Gabbana’s pricing reflected an attitude of disregard for the economy. She noted that today, even this luxury Italian brand is making concessions as consumer habits shift. “Because $6,000 for a plain dress? No body is going to buy that, especially now,” she says. Though it may not be glamorous, even in the world of high fashion, the bottom line is more important than a well designed hem line.