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The billion dollar buyer

Sep 21, 2012
by Brian Thompson, '95

Amy Thompson talks toys and rising up the ranks of WalMart, the world’s largest retailer

Alumna Amy Thompson, ‘06, isn’t worth a billion dollars. But in six short years as a buyer with mega-retailer WalMart, she has already overseen accounts that have totaled $1 billion in purchasing power.

And not just any accounts… she bought toys.

Thompson has now moved on to — the company’s online retailer — where she is responsible for half of the site’s toys department, including bikes, riding toys, dolls, games and activities.

The business administration and accounting major also won this year’s Flagler College Young Alumni Achievement Award, and was recently accepted into the University of California, Berkeley’s MBA program.

So with so much going on, Flagler Magazine caught up with her to ask a few questions about working for the world’s largest retailer … and what it’s like buying all those toys.

Is being a toy buyer as incredible as it sounds? 
It really is the best job. It’s so much fun. You’re in these supplier meetings basically figuring out what kids are going to be having on their wish lists for next Christmas. You’re working on all of the hottest toys. You know what they are a year before they come out. So it is a lot of fun.

Do you ever think back to being a kid and how much you would have loved this job?
Absolutely. We were actually out at Hasbro looking at all the new things coming out for spring, and I said to them in a meeting, “I never had anything anywhere near this when I was a kid. I really missed out.”

How did you end up working with Wal-Mart?
It definitely started with Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE). We were at the national competition the summer between my junior and senior year. We were on stage presenting in the final four. As soon as I got off stage someone came up to me and said, “One of the judges wanted me to give you this.” It was a business card and on the back was written, “Amy, would you be interested in working for us when you graduate?” I turned it over and it was from someone who was a senior vice president at WalMart … I gave him a call, went out for an interview, and by October of my senior year, I had signed with WalMart … I still have that card today.

Buying for a retailer as large as WalMart has to be more than just sitting in an office flipping through catalogs. What’s it like?
It’s a very involved and a very long process in most cases. You really start with customer insights and trends as far as what’s going on with them right now. It’s about staying in touch with the customer. The next step is working with your suppliers to develop and build the products you’re looking for. You also have to take into account what you’ve done historically. So, were there items you had in the past that performed very strongly? Or are there items that are at the end of their product life cycle? … Once you have the items set, you’ll go back and do the forecasting. It’s a science. It’s very specific. You come up with a forecast and provide them to suppliers so they can go buy their raw materials and make their production schedules so you can get your product on time. That’s it in a nutshell. It sounds a lot easier than it is.

How much time do you spend researching products? 
I feel like it’s something as a buyer you’re constantly doing. I don’t think there’s a time when you’re not researching things. I’ll be in the market doing my personal shopping and I’ll see something that sparks a thought, whether it’s a package or a unique item … It’s almost like you’re constantly on.

You started out buying stationery before they moved you onto seasonal toys where you oversaw volume of $1 billion in purchases. What was it like taking such a huge step with so much responsibility? 
I was definitely excited, but also a little nervous just because of the magnitude of the job. … Toys is big and it’s a very seasonal business. The piece I had was summer seasonal business — pools, swingsets, bubbles, fireworks — so that’s May through July. If you don’t do well at that point, you’re pretty much done for the year. It’s a lot of pressure and it’s very weather-driven. So you’re literally watching the weather every single day.

Now you’ve moved from the bricks-and-mortar retail side to their online retailing division. How different did you find the world of e-commerce? 
There are a lot of similarities, but there are some pretty fundamental differences. E-commerce is a very immediate business. And it’s also very system driven. I work with the backend of the site quite a bit on cultivating the experience for the customer. Because with e-commerce you have that unique ability to make changes on an item page whether it’s image, layout, information, price even. You have the ability to do that on a daily basis where in a store you didn’t. You were planning a year out for what that customer experience was going to be. It’s a very immediate business.

With so much money at stake, are you able to take chances on products that you have a gut-feeling about, but maybe not all the research?
One of the great things about (e-commerce) is that we have the ability to test large numbers of items to see if they have legs. So we’ll test things and then take that information to stores and let them know what’s doing well. Sometimes if the stores are not sure about items, they’ll send them our way and we’ll put them up and send that information back.

What would you say was most important in getting you where you are today?
One of the biggest things for me was networking. And that really went back to SIFE at Flagler … Never underestimate the importance of your network and just constantly be working to build it.

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