Although the onset of globalisation and increasingly competitive markets have had their effect on merchandising, the core competencies of the role - knowledge, application and lateral thinking - remain unchanged, says Ricky Chan, divisional merchandising manager of Carry Wealth Holdings.
Mr Chan joined the industry at the turn of the '90s after graduating from the then Hong Kong Polytechnic with a professional diploma in fashion and clothing technology. After learning the ropes with local companies Crystal Woven, Elite Industrial Machine Co and Apple Shop, he gained international exposure in Indonesia and Madagascar before joining Carry Wealth in 2001.
"When I first started out in merchandising the business was a lot simpler, but regulatory requirements have increased greatly since then," says Mr Chan. "Carry Wealth was previously a client-led company; customers would place their orders and we would fulfil them. These days, the entire industry is undergoing significant changes and the onus is on us to tailor our products to the market."
Mr Chan feels that companies must become more proactive in canvassing business and developing their product lines if they are to compete.
"The whole industry is heading towards a research- and development-led model, where a company's own original designs will have the most influence over their success"
"The whole industry is heading towards a research- and development-led model, where a company's own original designs will have the most influence over their success," he explains.
Mr Chan says newcomers to the merchandising industry must be willing to learn, be able to concentrate and have an eye for detail and a good sense for planning.
"This is a job where the time and action calendar is king - a delay or bottleneck at any given point in the design, production or shipment processes could have serious ramifications further down the line," he says. "Merchandisers also need excellent communications skills, since our role is very much that of a middleman or facilitator between retailers or distributors and the production bases. A mature outlook is also useful, as you have to keep yourself disciplined and focused on your current project, while quick thinking and problem solving skills are essential."
Meanwhile, the constant stream of new ideas and production methods make continuous self-improvement essential.
"Young merchandisers can consider courses from technical institutes or diplomas from the Vocational Training Council, while the degree courses at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University are also useful," suggests Mr Chan. "Industry knowledge is always an advantage, and if they have the time they should also enrol in evening courses to keep up to date with the latest techniques."
The regular travel that goes with the job can also be an eye-opener, according to Mr Chan.
"We recommend that staff take more opportunities to visit production facilities and clients overseas," he says. "This way they can get first-hand experience of the demands of different markets."
In terms of positioning, Hong Kong has long moved away from the low level, cost-oriented model of production, and Mr Chan comments that to create more opportunities, local firms must provide more qualitative services and individualise products for different clients.
"China is of course an important production base for us, but as a merchandiser you have to look at the whole picture," he adds. "For us, and indeed many players in the industry, the United States is the primary export market and has great growth potential. Yet they operate quotas for imports of Chinese products that mean, even if we had excess capacity, there is no point producing more."
As a result, Carry Wealth set up production facilities in the tiny landlocked kingdom of Lesotho (bordered on all sides by South Africa), the nation to which the US has granted favourable trade terms.
The US Congress passed a modification to the African Growth & Opportunity Act in 2001 which, in the case of Lesotho, powered a surge in total apparel exports to the US from US$140.3 million in 2000 to $215.3 million a year later, according to Integrated Regional Information Networks, part of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Meanwhile, the onset of globalisation has broadened the playing field on which garment manufacturers must compete.
"We are not in direct contact with the end consumer of our products, but we have to ensure that we are in touch with market demands," says Mr Chan. "These days competition is not just local or even regional, but global; this means that at any given time we are up against efficient merchandisers from all over the world."
Although Carry Wealth has shifted much of its production to other countries, Mr Chan still feels that the mainland has plenty to offer and the company maintains a sample workshop in China to facilitate trading activities.
"For merchandisers hoping to make headway in the China market, they need to transfer their local knowledge and expertise into a mainland context," he advises. "That's not necessarily the same as simply using tried and tested methods that have brought success in the past; we need to adapt to a different business culture. Good Putonghua and an open-minded attitude are also useful."