by John Greenwald
It was a heady moment for Linda Rooney when The Oprah Winfrey Show informed its viewers that Brooks Brothers had the best no-iron white shirts for women. “We were all excited and elated,” recalls Rooney, vice president for planning and allocation at Brooks Brothers, who watched the 2008 broadcast with other executives in a company conference room.
Then came the challenge. Suddenly, “we were selling tens of thousands of the shirts rather than just a thousand,” Rooney says. “It was that kind of exponential growth.”
Rooney was soon in the thick of the action as Brooks Brothers planners, buyers, and vendors scrambled to keep up with the runaway shirt sales. Her role was “giving guidance about how to get it all done,” she says. “It was a very collaborative exercise and a lot of fun. Within a very reasonable time, we were able to fulfill all the demand.”
Getting the right items to stores on time is crucial to Rooney as head of planning and allocation for the company’s domestic market, which includes 117 retail and 103 factory outlet stores. The 193-year-old retailer pioneered men’s ready-to-wear suits and today does 85 percent of its business in traditional menswear.
Working closely with Brooks Brothers buyers, Rooney sets budgets for the company’s seasonal clothing lines up to a year in advance of their arrival in stores. She also monitors sales once the season begins to determine what to reorder for individual locations.
The job calls for "a blend of art and science," says Rooney, who checks the buyers’ vision of what will be hot against past sales of similar items throughout the Brooks Brothers chain. “If cashmere or a particular sweater program is going to be important,” she says, “we look at what worked or didn’t work in each store and region and that becomes the assortment” for the upcoming season.
Rooney’s colleagues rely on her financial savvy. “We can create the most beautiful product in the world, but if it’s not planned and allocated properly, it’s not going to work,” says Claudia Scala, vice president for women’s merchandising at Brooks Brothers. “Linda and her team are kind of like our checkbook. They keep us in line.”
New pinpoint technology tells Rooney precisely how items have sold in the past and are selling in season, right down to the sizes and colors in each Brooks Brothers store. Using sophisticated software, “I can come in and look at what was sold over the weekend and what’s in the distribution center,” she says, “and with a few clicks have items shipped to the store location. So within an hour you can do all the work that would have taken at least a day or two [in the past].”
The new software is the same that FIT students use to gain hands-on experience of professional tools. It’s also a far cry from the green analysis pads and pencils that Rooney used as a continuing education student at FIT while working as an account executive for Liz Claiborne in the early 1980s.
Rooney’s own career has paralleled the evolution of fashion buying in U.S. department stores. Before the 1990s, she says, buyers did everything from picking out products to planning how much to order for stores. But the job became too big for any one person as mergers magnified the number of a company’s stores, creating behemoths like the 800-store Federated—now Macy’s—group.
Meanwhile, new sales-tracking technology was becoming available. “So if you were mathematically savvy and could do analytics and liked that part of the business,” the chance to be a planner was wide open to you, she says.
Rooney joined Machy's in 1990, just as the buyer and planner roles were splitting apart. “I liked fashion and I knew I had an aptitude for the analytical part of it,” she says. She became one of Macy’s first planning-team members and stayed for 15 years before joining Brooks Brothers in 2005. Her tidy office on the 10th floor of Brooks Brothers’ Madison Avenue headquarters and flagship store sports a calendar featuring glossy pictures of cocker spaniels as a reminder of her own dog— a female named Macy.
Along with her taste for fashion, Rooney strives to lead a healthy life. She joins after-hours sessions with yoga and Pilates instructors that Brooks Brothers brings into the midtown site. “It keeps us active and helps reduce stress at the end of the day,” she says.
Among her current challenges is supervising planning for Brooks Brothers’ distinct retail and factory outlet stores. Each has its own customers and selling patterns, she says. Outlet clothing typically features different fabrics and trim as compared with retail apparel, and the outlets are busiest in the summer “when everyone is out shopping,” especially over the Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends.
Rooney’s team uses the same software to plan and allocate goods for both types of stores. “Allocators look at sweaters for retail one day and for outlet the next,” she says. “It makes [business] more broad-based.”
Also challenging is the long lead time between planning and taking delivery of a seasonal line, since Brooks Brothers designs its own clothing and outsources most of the production to plants around the world. The exceptions are the company’s neckties, made in its factory in Long Island, and some men’s shirts and suits produced in its plants in Massachusetts and North Carolina. The extended lead time means that Rooney must often plan for the next year without much data from current year sales. “We’ll begin spring  purchases in the next month or two when we’ve hardly begun the [current] spring season,” she says in a January interview. So she combines initial results for the current season with sales from the year ago period to help forecast trends.
Basing future plans on past performance has its limits, of course. “Everything is sort of a best guess,” Rooney says. “But we feel that many types of information that we get are very reliable.” In cities with large Asian populations like San Francisco or Vancouver, Canada, for example, “we would need more small and medium sizes” since shoppers there tend to be smaller. The fact that the software reports unique patterns of sales by size per store, Rooney adds, “enables us to evaluate, plan, and react to these patterns more specifically.”
Besides crunching numbers, her team stays in touch with store managers for insights into local goings on. “You may have a manager in New Orleans saying that 10,000 doctors are coming to town in the next couple of months, and we think that is the kind of customer base [that will like our company],” Rooney says. “We would build inventory there with the thought that we want to capture that business.”
Does Rooney have any tips for success in her line of work? It comes down to loving what you do, she says. “I like the business of it all—the merchandising, the fashions, the people aspect. To be in this business you’ve got to like all of it and you’ve got to like people, because it’s truly a people business.”