Q&A: Brandy Alexander - Senior Buyer, Health & Beauty Care, 99 Cents Only Stores  8/10/2020

Brandy Alexander is the Senior Buyer for Health & Beauty at 99 Cents Only Stores, which has more than 350 locations across four states. And while the company's name might be 99 Cents Only, its products are not only 99 cents. In fact, over the years, the company has evolved into a retailer that delivers amazing value compared to the rest of the market, even at price points around twenty-five bucks.

In this podcast interview, I speak with Brandy about how the pandemic has changed the way consumers shop the retailer’s stores, and how Brandy herself has adapted her day-to-day activities working remotely. She also talks about her experience participating in ECRMs recent Personal Care, Health Care and Sun Care virtual sessions. And while she was initially reluctant to participate, after about 100 meetings using the ECRM Connect platform, she can probably explain the benefits it delivers buyers as well as any of us on the ECRM staff can.

We wrap up with a discussion on the future of virtual in retail and CPG, as well as some advice for suppliers when they are pitching virtually to Brandy. Below is an edited excerpt of the interview. You can listen to the full interview in the podcast and video below.

Click here to see the full list of ECRM’s category-specific Virtual Sessions.

Listen to the podcast (watch the video below)

ECRM: Can you give an overview of 99 Cents Only Stores and your role within the company?

Alexander: 99 Cents Only has been around for over 40 years and has stores located in four states: California, Texas, Nevada and Arizona. We started out initially as a 99-cent only value channel but have since branched out to offering price points as high as $24.99 and have evolved into more of an off-price/value channel. We want to make sure that our customer is still being serviced with the lower price point, but we also want to show amazing values in comparison to the rest of the market. 

My role is Senior Buyer for Health & Beauty, and I cover a lot of different categories within that range, including cosmetics, skincare, haircare, first aid and oral care. My job specifically is to get us new vendors so we can do incremental sales with them, but also to maintain the partnerships that we've built with some vendors over quite a few years. But overall, it’s to make sure we get great values and great deals on our floor to service our customers.

ECRM: Can take us through how the pandemic has impacted the way consumers are shopping your stores?

Alexander: I would definitely say that we saw a spike across every category in early March when the pandemic was really starting to hit the U.S. and everyone was worried about going into a lockdown. There was a lot of panic buying in food, in home, in beauty essentials, in healthcare essentials, hand sanitizers and wipes, bleach and toilet paper and things of that nature. It's looking a little bit different now, but I think people are starting to adapt to what they deem the new normal. So we've definitely seen a slowdown of that panic buying and they're going into maintenance mode.

One segment that everyone was excited and interested to see pick up was general merchandise, which encompasses kitchen gadgets, home decor, arts and crafts, and accessories. A lot of people are using this time to redecorate their home so they're buying a lot of new home and kitchen decor to just change it up. So I definitely feel like we're seeing the ebbs and flows in different categories. Right now I think it's level-set. We may be seeing a decline in number of transactions, but the customers are willing to spend a little bit more because now they want to be able to find everything in one store. And I will say that our buyers have done a great job in making sure we always have stock in the key items.

ECRM: How about the beauty side of the business? I know self-care has been big during the pandemic, but how has the remote working impacted cosmetics and the like?

Alexander: We definitely saw a decline. But I think that now that people are again adjusting to that new normal, we've seen an uptake in their skin routines and the spa-type products. We're doing a crazy amount of business in facial masks because those are just disposable so some people will pick up five or six and then just use them every single day for the rest of their week. And the cosmetics, I think that's pretty interesting to note, because I thought that out of all the categories I managed cosmetics would take the biggest hit.

And we did start to see a decline, but I think with people going on Zoom and doing more meetings virtually they still want to keep up their appearance. So a lot of people still wear makeup. When I was in ECRM’s Virtual Session meetings, I saw a lot of vendors wearing makeup too. Since people are now wearing masks, you can't see their lips, so they're spending less on lip products, but they're focused more on their eyes. We're selling a lot of lashes, a lot of eye liner, a lot of mascara because they want to focus on what you can see. 

ECRM: And what about on the wellness side? I would imagine people are stocking up on vitamins or anything preventative.

Alexander: Absolutely. We're seeing a huge spike in cough drops, in anything vitamin C, whether it's the powder or the dissolving tablets. Gummy vitamins have always been really good for us, but now it's a crazy increase; we're seeing a huge spike there in both kids and adults. People are definitely taking this time to focus more on the health and wellness side. And I will say with the pandemic we're also seeing a huge increase in the cough and cold and flu prevention categories, whether they have Coronavirus or not. I think people are being preemptive instead of reactive.

ECRM: Were there any surprises?

Alexander: A couple of days after it was announced that we might be going into a lock down, the one category where we saw more than a 40% increase was in condom sales, and a spike in lubricating jelly, pregnancy tests and feminine hygiene was also pretty big. I was pretty surprised by that, but as people are staying at home, maybe I shouldn't be.

ECRM: How have you had to adapt your day-to-day activities?

Alexander: It's been a huge adjustment because I've been an off-price buyer for so long so I'm used to going into markets, going to people's warehouses and factories, walking the showrooms to pick out what I like and then write the order. I'm a very visual and very tactile person. Now I've been setting up Zoom calls or Skype calls with my vendors just to walk through products and have them send samples to my house. My main goal with any new product or any specific item that I'm buying is that I want to visualize it from the customer's perspective, and it's much easier to do that in person. So it's definitely been an adjustment, but I would say everyone has been adapting to it pretty well.

I think that's probably going to continue; I'm going to do 100% what it takes to keep everyone safe. If that means not going into the office for another month or so, then so be it. But I definitely miss being in the office and having that personal connection with people. 

ECRM: Talk a little bit about how you handle samples, since you are working from home.

Alexander: I'm in a studio so I don't have a lot of space here. But typically the samples that I am going to buy or that I'm interested in leaving at the office, I'll just put them in a separate box and I'll take those to the office. For those that I don't end up keeping, I'm part of a Facebook group called the Buy Nothing Project, where you can go on and list the things that you no longer want. Other people can do the same and the general goal behind it is to reduce waste. I've also donated to the LA mission out here, as well as the Goodwill.

ECRM: You’ve been to our in-person session in January, but were a little hesitant about participating in our virtual session. Can you explain why you were hesitant?

Alexander: Since we've all switched over to virtual, I've had issues myself with connecting to Zoom or Skype or other platforms I'm trying to use to connect with someone. And sometimes videos drop off, or you can't share presentations. But I will say you all did a great job in building your own platform. Devin [Hruby], who is my customer rep, set up a quick test run during which she got me logged in and walked me through every single little button on the platform and how it was going to flow. 

What I really liked was that it connected to RangeMe for requesting samples. So you could rate the meeting, and if you wanted to continue the conversation you could indicate a follow up timeline, so they knew, "Yes, I want to continue the conversation. Let's touch base in one to two weeks and then please send samples, and here's where you need to send the samples."

ECRM: When you are doing virtual meetings on platforms like Zoom or Teams, you're pretty much on your own. ECRM Connect has a support team right there on-hand in case any issues come up. Because when you are doing about 100 meetings across three sessions, something is bound to come up.

Alexander: That was very beneficial because I did have a couple hiccups with my wifi or with the sound. So I clicked on the Contact Support button and they jumped on really quick and were able to help out. It was very nice to have that human element. I appreciated that.

ECRM: How was the virtual session from an efficiency standpoint?

Alexander: I thought it was great. I think if I were to put all of these meetings on a calendar to try to get through all of them just in setting them up, meeting with people in their warehouses, or scheduling meetings it probably would have taken me easily over two months. I think it's much easier and definitely more efficient to get everyone in back to back meetings on a day to day basis. And then I've taken away a lot of contacts and we're going to be doing even longer follow up meetings to build off of the initial conversations that we had at ECRM.

ECRM: Where do you see virtual’s role in the future for retail and CPG?

Alexander: I don't think it's going anywhere. I know a lot of other buyers are not going back into the office until January. And we don't know when there's going to be some sort of cure for this pandemic, so I think at least for the interim, and probably for a long time past that, we are going to have to be using this virtual platform.

ECRM: In your opinion, what makes an ideal virtual supplier presentation?

Alexander: I would say having a knowledge of my business is key. A lot of people don't have a 99 Cents Only in their state, but we're very active on social media so you would be able to check out our Instagram page or our Facebook page. So I would challenge a lot of the people that want to do business with us just to get a feel for what we have in our stores and what our assortment looks like. Because at the end of the day I don't want to fix a wheel that's already operating and working normally, I want to be able to add on a second wheel. So how can you keep my business going? What newness is out there? What can you add? 

I know a lot of people spend a good chunk of their meeting time talking about the origins of the business. And while I appreciate hearing that, I think for the limited amount of time that we have, it’s important to focus on the product. And I'm very visual so I like seeing the product. I would say focus more on the product and working through how we can set up our business together, how we can grow it, how we can keep it rolling. I set up meetings with a lot of the vendors from ECRM afterwards and that's when we can set up a time go through all of those idiosyncrasies of your business. And I can tell you a little bit more about mine, especially if you don't have that background on it.

So focus more on product, knowledge of our business, or at least having some idea of what addition you can offer us. We love partnerships; I'm not the type of person that wants to do one deal with the person and then walk away, or if something doesn't work we're not going to try it anymore. Let's be able to partner on things and work through things.


Joseph Tarnowski

VP Content

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