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Purchasing Managers, Buyers, and Purchasing Agents

Significant Points

  • Forty-three percent are employed in wholesale trade or manufacturing establishments.
  • Some firms promote qualified employees to these positions, while other employers recruit college graduates; regardless of academic preparation, new employees need 1 to 5 years to learn the specifics of their employerís business.
  • Overall employment growth is expected to be slower than average.
  • Opportunities should be best for those with a college degree.
Nature of the Work

Purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents make up a key component of a firmís supply chain. They buy the goods and services the company or institution needs to either resell to customers or for the establishmentís own use. Wholesale and retail buyers purchase goods for resale, such as clothing or electronics and purchasing agents buy goods and services for use by their own company or organization such as raw materials for manufacturing or office supplies. Purchasing agents and buyers of farm products purchase goods such as grain, Christmas trees, and tobacco for further processing or resale. Purchasing professionals consider price, quality, availability, reliability, and technical support when choosing suppliers and merchandise. They try to get the best deal for their company, meaning the highest quality goods and services at the lowest possible cost to their companies. In order to accomplish these tasks successfully, purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents study sales records and inventory levels of current stock, identify foreign and domestic suppliers, and keep abreast of changes affecting both the supply of, and demand for, needed products and materials.

In large industrial organizations, a distinction often is drawn between the work of a buyer or purchasing agent and that of a purchasing manager. Purchasing agents commonly focus on routine purchasing tasks, often specializing in a commodity or group of related commodities, such as steel, lumber, cotton, grains, fabricated metal products, or petroleum products. Purchasing agents usually track market conditions, price trends, and futures markets. Purchasing managers usually handle the more complex or critical purchases and may supervise a group of purchasing agents handling other goods and services. Whether a person is titled purchasing manager, buyer, or purchasing agent depends more on specific industry and employer practices than on specific job duties.

Purchasing specialists employed by government agencies or manufacturing firms usually are called purchasing directors, managers, or agents; or contract specialists. These workers acquire materials, parts, machines, supplies, services, and other inputs to the production of a final product. Some purchasing managers specialize in negotiating and supervising supply contracts, and are called contract or supply managers. Purchasing agents and managers obtain items ranging from raw materials, fabricated parts, machinery, and office supplies to construction services and airline tickets. Often, purchasing specialists in government place solicitations for services and accept bids and offers through the Internet. Government purchasing agents and managers must follow strict laws and regulations in their work, in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety. To be effective, purchasing specialists must have a working technical knowledge of the goods or services to be purchased.

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, institutions, 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. They must constantly stay informed of the latest trends, because failure to do so could jeopardize profits and the reputation of their company. They keep track of inventories and sales levels through computer software that is linked to the storeís cash registers. Buyers also follow ads in newspapers and other media to check competitorsí sales activities, and they 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 establishmentís complete inventory.

The use of private-label merchandise and the consolidation of buying departments have increased the responsibilities of retail buyers. Private-label merchandise, produced for a particular retailer, requires buyers to work closely with vendors to develop and obtain the desired product. The downsizing and consolidation of buying departments increases the demands placed on buyers because, although the amount of work remains unchanged, there are fewer people to accomplish it. The result is an increase in the workloads and levels of responsibility for all.

Many merchandise managers assist in the planning and implementation of sales promotion programs. Working with merchandise executives, they determine the nature of the sale and purchase items accordingly. Merchandise managers may work with advertising personnel to create an ad campaign. For example, they may determine in which media the advertisement will be placedónewspapers, direct mail, television, or some combination of all three. In addition, merchandise managers often visit the selling floor to ensure that goods are properly displayed. Buyers stay in constant contact with store and department managers to find out what products are selling well and which items the customers are demanding to be added to the product line. Often, assistant buyers are responsible for placing orders and checking shipments.

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 cost the firm its customers and reputation. Purchasing professionals use many resources to find out all they can about potential suppliers. The Internet has become an effective tool in searching catalogs, trade journals, and industry and company publications, and directories. Purchasing professionals will attend meetings, trade shows, and conferences to learn of new industry trends and make contacts with suppliers. Purchasing managers, agents, and buyers will usually interview prospective suppliers and visit their plants and distribution centers to asses 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 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 purchaserís needs. Most of the transaction process is now automated using electronic purchasing systems that link the supplier and firms together through the Internet.

Purchasing professionals can gain instant access to the specifications for thousands of commodities, inventory records, and their customersí purchase records to avoid overpaying for goods and to avoid shortages of popular goods or surpluses of goods that do not sell as well. These systems permit faster selection, customization, and ordering of products, and they allow buyers to concentrate on the qualitative and analytical aspects of the job. Long-term contracts are an important strategy of purchasing professionals because it allows purchasers to consolidate their supply bases around fewer suppliers. In todayís global economy purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents should expect to deal with foreign suppliers which may require travel to other countries and to be familiar with other cultures and languages.

Changing business practices have altered the traditional roles of purchasing or supply management specialists in many industries. For example, manufacturing companies increasingly involve workers in this occupation at most stages of product development because of their ability to forecast a partís or materialís cost, availability, and suitability for its intended purpose. Furthermore, potential problems with the supply of materials may be avoided by consulting the purchasing department in the early stages of product design.

Purchasing specialists often work closely with other employees in their own organization when deciding on purchases, an arrangement sometimes called team buying. For example, before submitting an order, they may discuss the design of custom-made products with company design engineers, talk about problems involving the quality of purchased goods with quality assurance engineers and production supervisors, or mention shipment problems to managers in the receiving department.

Working Conditions

Most purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents work in comfortable offices. They frequently work more than the standard 40-hour week, because of special sales, conferences, or production deadlines. Evening and weekend work also is common, before holiday and back-to-school seasons for those working in retail trade. Consequently, many retail firms discourage the use of vacation time during peak periods.

Buyers and merchandise managers often work under great pressure. Because wholesale and retail stores are so competitive, buyers need physical stamina to keep up with the fast-paced nature of their work.

Many purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents travel at least several days a month. Purchasers for worldwide manufacturing companies and large retailers, as well as buyers of high fashion, may travel outside the United States.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Qualified persons may begin as trainees, purchasing clerks, expediters, junior buyers, or assistant buyers. Retail and wholesale firms prefer to hire applicants who have a college degree and who are familiar with the merchandise they sell and with wholesaling and retailing practices. Some retail firms promote qualified employees to assistant buyer positions; others recruit and train college graduates as assistant buyers. Most employers use a combination of methods.

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

Regardless of academic preparation, new employees must learn the specifics of their employersí business. Training periods vary in length, with most lasting 1 to 5 years. In wholesale and retail establishments, most trainees begin by selling merchandise, supervising sales workers, checking invoices on material received, and keeping track of stock. As they progress, retail trainees are given increased buying-related responsibilities.

In manufacturing, new purchasing employees often are enrolled in company training programs and spend a considerable amount of time learning about their firmís operations and purchasing practices. They 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.

Purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents must know how to use both word processing and spreadsheet software, as well as the Internet. Other important qualities include the ability to analyze technical data in suppliersí proposals; good communication, negotiation, and mathematical skills; knowledge of supply-chain management; and the ability to perform financial analyses.

Persons who wish to become wholesale or retail buyers should be good at planning and decisionmaking and have an interest in merchandising. Anticipating consumer preferences and ensuring that goods are in stock when they are needed requires resourcefulness, good judgment, and self-confidence. Buyers must be able to make decisions quickly and to take risks. Marketing skills and the ability to identify products that will sell also 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 manufacturersí representatives and store executives.

Experienced buyers may advance by moving to a department that manages a larger volume or by becoming a merchandise manager. Others may go to work in sales for a manufacturer or wholesaler.

An experienced purchasing agent or buyer may become an assistant purchasing manager in charge of a group of purchasing professionals before advancing to purchasing manager, supply manager, or director of materials management. At the top levels, duties may overlap with other management functions, such as production, planning, logistics, and marketing.

Regardless of industry, continuing education is essential for advancement. Many purchasers participate in seminars offered by professional societies and take college courses in supply management. Professional certification is becoming increasingly important, especially for those just entering the occupation.

In private industry, recognized marks of experience and professional competence are the Accredited Purchasing Practitioner (APP) and Certified Purchasing Manager (CPM) designations, conferred by the Institute for Supply Management, and the Certified Purchasing Professional (CPP) and Certified Professional Purchasing Manager (CPPM) designations, conferred by the American Purchasing Society. In Federal, State, and local government, the indications of professional competence are Certified Professional Public Buyer (CPPB) and Certified Public Purchasing Officer (CPPO), conferred by the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing. Most of these certifications are awarded only after work-related experience and education requirements are met, and written or oral exams are successfully completed.


Purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents held about 520,000 jobs in 2004. Forty-three percent worked in the wholesale trade and manufacturing industries, and another twelve percent worked in retail trade. The remainder worked mostly in service establishments, such as hospitals, or different levels of government. A small number were self-employed.

The following tabulation shows the distribution of employment by occupational specialty:

Purchasing agents, except wholesale, retail, and farm products 273,000
Wholesale and retail buyers, except farm products 156,000
Purchasing managers 75,000
Purchasing agents and buyers, farm products 16,000

Job Outlook

Overall employment of purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents is expected to grow slower than the average for all occupations through the year 2014. Offsetting some declines for purchasing workers in the manufacturing sector will be increases in the services sector. Companies in the services sector, which have typically made purchases on an ad hoc basis, are beginning to realize that centralized purchasing offices may be more efficient. Also, many purchasing agents are now charged with procuring services that were traditionally done in-house in the past, such as computer and IT (information technology) support in addition to traditionally contracted services such as advertising. Demand for purchasing workers will be limited by improving software, which has eliminated much of the paperwork involved in ordering and procuring supplies, and also by the growing number of purchases being made electronically through the internet and electronic data interchange (EDI). Despite slower-than-average growth, some job openings will result from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.

Employment of purchasing managers is expected to grow more slowly than average. The use of the Internet to conduct electronic commerce has made information easier to obtain, thus increasing the productivity of purchasing managers. The Internet also allows both large and small companies to bid on contracts. Exclusive supply contracts and long-term contracting have allowed companies to negotiate with fewer suppliers less frequently.

Employment of wholesale and retail buyers, except farm products, also is projected to grow more slowly than average. In the retail industry, mergers and acquisitions have caused buying departments to consolidate. In addition, larger retail stores are eliminating local buying departments and centralizing them at their headquarters.

Employment of purchasing agents, except wholesale, retail, and farm products, is expected to increase more slowly than average, limited by the increased globalization of the U.S. economy. As more materials and supplies come from abroad, firms have begun to outsource more of their purchasing duties to foreign purchasing agents who are located closer to the foreign suppliers of goods and materials they will need. This trend is expected to continue, but it will likely be limited to routine transactions with complex and critical purchases still being handled in-house.

Finally, employment of purchasing agents and buyers, farm products, also is projected to increase more slowly than average, as overall growth in agricultural industries decreases and retailers in the grocery-related industries consolidate.

Persons who have a bachelorís degree in business should have the best chance of obtaining a buyer position in wholesale or retail trade or within government. A bachelorís degree, combined with industry experience and knowledge of a technical field, will be an advantage for those interested in working for a manufacturing or industrial company. Government agencies and larger companies usually require a masterís degree in business or public administration for top-level purchasing positions.


Median annual earnings of purchasing managers were $72,450 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $54,150 and $94,970 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $41,300, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $121,600 a year.

Median annual earnings for purchasing agents and buyers, farm products were $43,720 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $33,100 and $59,420 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $25,260, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $82,330 a year.

Median annual earnings for wholesale and retail buyers, except farm products, were $42,230 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $31,550 and $57,010 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,380, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $79,340 a year. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of wholesale and retail buyers, except farm products, in May 2004 were:

Management of companies and enterprises $49,770
Grocery and related product wholesalers 43,910
Wholesale electronic markets and agents and brokers 43,860
Building material and supplies dealers 35,850
Grocery stores 32,790

Median annual earnings for purchasing agents, except wholesale, retail, and farm products, were $47,680 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $36,760 and $62,600 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,640, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $79,710 a year. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of purchasing agents, except of wholesale, retail, and farm products, in May 2004 were:

Federal executive branch and United States Postal Service $63,940
Aerospace product and parts manufacturing 55,820
Management of companies and enterprises 53,750
Local government 44,730
General medical and surgical hospitals 37,090

Purchasing managers, buyers, and purchasing agents receive the same benefits package as other workers, including vacations, sick leave, life and health insurance, and pension plans. In addition to receiving standard benefits, retail buyers often earn cash bonuses based on their performance and may receive discounts on merchandise bought from their employer.

Related Occupations

Workers in other occupations who need a knowledge of marketing and the ability to assess consumer demand include those in advertising, marketing, promotions, public relations, and sales managers; food service managers; insurance sales agents; lodging managers; sales engineers; and sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing. See the Career Database for more information on these careers.

Sources of Additional Information

Further information about education, training, employment, and certification for purchasing careers is available from:

  • American Purchasing Society, North Island Center, Suite 203, 8 East Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL 60506.
  • Institute for Supply Management, P.O. Box 22160, Tempe, AZ 85285-2160. Internet: http://www.ism.ws/
  • National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, Inc., 151 Spring St., Suite 300, Herndon, VA 20170-5223. Internet: http://www.nigp.org/

  • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition


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