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Purchasing managers, buyers and purchasing agents

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Purchasing managers, buyers and purchasing agents seek to obtain the highest quality merchandise at the lowest possible purchase cost for their employers. Purchasers buy goods and services for their company or organization, while buyers buy items for resale. Purchasers and buyers determine which commodities or services are best, choose the suppliers of the product or service, negotiate the lowest price and award contracts that ensure that the correct amount of the product or service is received at the appropriate time.

Purchasing specialists who are employed by government agencies or manufacturing firms usually are called purchasing directors, managers or agents; buyers or industrial buyers; or contract specialists. Purchasing agents and managers obtain items ranging from raw materials, fabricated parts, machinery and office supplies to construction services and airline tickets. Purchasing specialists must have a working technical knowledge of the goods or services to be purchased.

Contract specialists and contract managers in various levels of government award contracts for an array of items, including office and building supplies, services for the public and construction projects. Government purchasing agents and managers must follow strict laws and regulations in their work to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Purchasing specialists employed by wholesale and retail establishments are commonly called buyers or merchandise managers. Wholesale buyers purchase finished goods directly from manufacturers or from other wholesale firms for resale to retail firms, commercial establishments, institutions and other organizations. Retail buyers purchase goods from wholesale firms or directly from manufacturers for resale to the public. Buyers largely determine which products their establishment will sell, so it's essential they can predict what will appeal to consumers. Many merchandise managers assist in the planning and implementation of sales promotion programs.

In manufacturing and service industries, computers handle most of the routine tasks, enabling purchasing workers to concentrate mainly on the analytical and qualitative aspects of the job.

Most purchasing managers, buyers and purchasing agents frequently work more than the standard 40-hour week because of special sales, conferences or production deadlines. Evening and weekend work is common. Buyers and merchandise managers work under great pressure. Many purchasing managers, buyers and purchasing agents travel at least several days a month.

Training and qualifications

Qualified persons may begin as trainees, purchasing clerks, expediters, junior buyers or assistant buyers. Retail and wholesale firms prefer to hire applicants with a college degree and familiarity with the merchandise they sell. Many manufacturing firms prefer applicants with a bachelor's or master's degree in engineering, business, economics or an applied science. After someone is hired, training periods vary in length, with most lasting one to 5 years.

Purchasing managers, buyers and purchasing agents must know how to use word processing and spreadsheet software 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.

Wholesale or retail buyers should be good at planning and decision-making and have an interest in merchandising. Anticipating consumer preferences and ensuring that goods are in stock require resourcefulness, good judgment and self-confidence. Employers often look for leadership ability because buyers spend a large amount of time supervising assistant buyers and dealing with manufacturers' representatives and store executives.

Job outlook

Overall employment of purchasing managers, buyers and purchasing agents is expected to experience little or no change through the year 2010. Increasing use of computers has reduced the demand for lower level buyers and the managers who supervise them.

Employment of purchasing managers is expected to decline through 2010 because of the use of the Internet to conduct electronic commerce.

Employment of wholesale and retail buyers also is projected to decline. Mergers and acquisitions have forced the consolidation of buying departments, and larger retail stores are centralizing jobs at their headquarters.

Employment of purchasing agents — except wholesale and retail — is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2010 because purchases of complex equipment are more difficult to automate.


Purchasing managers, buyers and purchasing agents held about 536,000 jobs in 2000. More than half worked in wholesale trade or manufacturing establishments such as distribution centers or factories.

Median annual earnings of purchasing managers were $53,030 in 2000. Median annual earnings for purchasing agents and buyers, farm products, were $37,560 in 2000. Median annual earnings for wholesale and retail buyers, except farm products were $37,200 in 2000. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of wholesale and retail buyers, except farm products, in 2000 were as follows:

Groceries and related products $41,020
Electrical goods 38,220
Machinery, equipment and supplies 35,170

Median annual earnings for purchasing agents, except wholesale, retail and farm products were $41,370 in 2000. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of purchasing agents, except wholesale, retail and farm products in 2000 were as follows:

Federal government $53,010
Aircraft and parts 49,430
Electronic components and accessories 40,880
Local government 40,330
Hospitals 32,800

Related links

For more information about education, training, employment and certification for purchasing careers:

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.

National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, 151 Spring St., Suite 300, Herndon, VA 20170-5223.

Adapted from the Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Handbook.