They choose what we get to choose. But do they always get it right? Charlotte Packer meets the big-store buyers
Nick Springett is the man responsible for all that you covet in Liberty's lighting, accessories, contemporary furniture, textiles, handicraft and oriental departments. His route to buying was a matter of chance. "I started as a sales assistant in 1987 as a fill-in job," he explains. Within 10 months he was manager of the British Craft section. Now he presides over six departments from his tiny attic-office, just off the lighting department.

"Liberty is a bit of a queer fish in terms of the buyer's role," he confesses. While most other companies have a central office with a collection of buyers dedicated to sourcing and selecting merchandise, Liberty's buyers work alone within their specific departments. They head the teams of sales assistants on the shop floor and are as closely involved in the actual running of the store as they are with what will appear on the shelves from one day to the next. Nick believes this contact with the staff is essential. "It's all very well to go off to India and return with some wonderful product, but you can't just plonk it in front of the sales staff and expect them to get on with selling it. They need to know where it came from, and so on, so that they really know what they're selling." Likewise he is keen to get regular feedback from the customers.

Nick makes two major trips a year, visiting trade fairs and suppliers. "Wherever I am, I keep an image of the shop in my mind's eye, and whatever I buy, the colours and the quantity, are all related to that. There are lots of things that will work here because of the space. We think the Moroccan look will be strong this year, and if we decide to do it, we'll be able to create a feeling of opulence better than many other stores can manage."

Roughly 70 per cent of his stock is off the shelf, the rest is developed in tandem with designers. "I might see people making a totally different product, but know that they could produce what I want, that their style would work. One designer came in with candlesticks, now he's producing door knobs, fireside sets and this year there will be furniture."

An inveterate shopper, Nick is always aware of what the competition are up to - a trip to the post office will probably involve popping into every shop he passes on the way. The same curiosity holds when he is abroad. "There is a store in New York called ABC and they developed this amazing look, so I went over to check it out. I thought it would be great for Liberty. I told them I was thinking of doing something similar, and they said, 'Oh, but we copied the look from you'."

So what does Nick think it takes to dedicate your life to buying? "The main criterion is a flair for choosing product. You've either got that or you haven't. Obviously there's business sense, but that can be learnt by anyone. My boss said she could give me 30 products and I'd be able to go 'no, yes, yes, no, yes' while the buyer with only the business head would spend all day agonising over just one of them."

In a bright open-plan office at Butler's Wharf in London's Docklands, Alex Willcock, a buying director for the Conran Shop, has a rather different approach to stocking shelves with enticing merchandise. "We have a fairly tight team of people. There are five of us in the UK responsible for about 12,000 products, and we deal with 1,100 different suppliers." As well as three trips to India each year, the various members of the team visit trade fairs and degree shows.

The shows are particularly important as the Conran Shop buyers are keen to support young designers. Alex and his colleagues all have design backgrounds. After training as a furniture designer, he spent some years working in interior design and moved to his current post at the Conran Shop after a stint in Australia.

The buyers develop new ranges as well as sourcing products. "We come up with ideas, this may mean a very basic sketch which we'll hand to someone or we may issue a full design brief," says Alex. And they get an enormous amount of design offers sent through the post. "Not actual products," Alex hastens to add, "but people send projects and photographs. Some great things have come through the post, but more often it's simply that these spark an idea."

Terence Conran has a say in everything. "He's a fantastic sounding board, and his input is really a seal of approval on what we're doing." Regular merchandising meetings are a crucial part of the process. "We get everyone together for what tends to be a very lively discussion. It's a healthy process for the buying team and the shop team to go through. If someone believes passionately in a product, then the majority of times we'll go with it - take a risk."

Last year's runaway hit, a pair of cotton pyjamas, started out as just such a gamble: "They were pink and orange and really strong and we looked at them and thought, 'Hmmm', but in the end we went with them and they were a huge success. I'm sure if you went to another company you might find them saying orange pyjamas, who's going to buy them?"

This is where Alex suspects other buying teams fall down. "I think they over-analyse their customers. It gets to a stage where there's no life and excitement to the product. Buyers need an eye for something new and a sense of humour. They need to see the fun side of a product." Next comes an understanding of the manufacturing process. "It's taken for granted that you're going to have an appreciation of colour and design, but if you don't have an understanding of how something is made..."

Fashion is another pitfall. "It can get faddy," says Alex, "you can make a store look wonderful with a theme, Morocco say, but what if you don't happen to dig Moroccan colours? Not everyone wants their home looking like a Kasbah."

The creative buying role at Marks and Spencer is held by the design co-ordinators who act as guides and style interpreters for the buyers proper. Karen Miller, home furnishings co-ordinator, describes their role as "feeding them with information about what shapes and colours they should be looking for". Travel is essential, and the buying team visits international trade fairs to keep tabs on what is happening around the world. "We pick up on the big messages and then do them the M&S way."

Karen trained as a furniture and product designer and worked for the Conran group and Habitat before joining the M&S homewares team three years ago. Although at M&S the buying is on a far larger scale, she says the difference between the processes are not so great. "Although we sell volume, there still has to be an agreement between commercial considerations and design direction. Our customers want things that are aesthetically pleasing, well made and good value."

Curiously, Marks & Spencer doesn't do any market research - with some 14 million people walking into their stores each week, virtually everyone in the United Kingdom is a potential customer. "They might buy food, fashion or homewares, or all three, so we offer as wide a choice as possible." For Karen the scale of the business is one of the bonuses. "When you see certain products, and you know how many people have bought them, it's fantastically exciting."