The textile and apparel business is the largest export sector in Hong Kong. As a result there is strong demand for various professionals, in both the local and global contexts, in areas such as design, marketing, retailing and merchandising.
Helen Kwok, assistant merchandising manager of TellaS, a division of Luen Thai Holdings Limited, graduated from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University with a major in fashion and textiles. She chose these subjects because she had a passion for fashion products — a prerequisite for the job in her eyes. "You have to love the merchandise if you want to become a merchandiser," she says.
Luen Thai is a leader in apparel manufacturing and supply chain services, and its subsidiaries maintain close partnerships with renowned brands and retailers across the globe. The group produces a range of categories such as casual wear, ladies' fashion and career outfits, intimate wear, sports and active wear, pants, sweaters, outerwear and children's wear.
Though there is a wide range of fashion categories and professionals who deal with different categories all come under the generic term — merchandiser, Ms Kwok knew from the start her area of interest. "I selected ladies' wear as my specialised field and have focused on the same kind of merchandise since then," she says.
Ms Kwok believes that sound knowledge of the business aspects of the garment industry, plus technical know-how of the manufacturing principles are both important in merchandising positions. She says the job requires the careful execution of numerous work procedures such as materials sourcing, sampling and order handling.
"The job title only reflects part of the job," she adds. "It is not only about goods. I need to interact with a lot of people in my daily life." From her interactions, Ms Kwok has developed a good understanding of her customers' needs and she is able to use this to expand the scope of her work. "By knowing what they want, such as their preferred styles and pricing strategies, I can play my part in the design process and then work with our research and development team to finalise a line of products," she explains.
When a ready-made design is provided by a client, Ms Kwok analyses its practicability and follows up accordingly. She liaises with designers and buyers on behalf of the client throughout the "design to store" process.
"I study the design and try to identify potential problematic details as soon as possible," she explains. "Sometimes, the sketch on paper is very attractive but the actual costume will not have the same appearance. In other cases, the designers overlook the production cost, like putting too much costly embroidery into a fashion piece. It is my responsibility to apply my practical knowledge and reveal this kind of information to our clients."
To ensure the smooth and efficient making of the merchandise, Ms Kwok works with her team on an array of tasks, such as obtaining appropriate parts from different sources. In these processes, effective communication is a must and teamwork a key in the success of a project.
Ms Kwok stresses the importance of language skills for most merchandisers. She says that in addition to clients from Europe or the US, she uses English to exchange information with suppliers from Asian countries like South Korea and Japan. There are also many occasions when Mandarin is necessary to negotiate with personnel from Taiwan and the mainland.
Ms Kwok is currently working with several clients from the UK and, due to the time zone difference, she has to work outside of normal office hours. "I start my day at nine o'clock in the morning local time but usually I have to deal with business relating to UK clients until quite late. I still enjoy my work at night though, especially when my colleagues and I complete our tasks together," she says.
Describing the qualities necessary for a merchandiser, Ms Kwok says, "A merchandiser is expected to be hard working and know how to prioritise. This is important, as there are always many tasks that need doing at the same time. Therefore, generally speaking, a good merchandiser is a well-organised person who is willing to invest in a career. It is also necessary to stay tuned to the latest fashion trends, and we pay extra attention to products in the market and go into every element of them such as fabrics, trims, laces and buttons."
As merchandisers act on behalf of their customers, they usually visit production plants to be sure of product quality. Today, when almost all factories are outside Hong Kong, people looking for a place in merchandising should be prepared to travel from their home to other locations, most likely in China.
"If you are the right match for a merchandising post, you will find the profession very rewarding," Ms Kwok says. "On one hand, there are structured career paths and promotion opportunities in front of you. On the other, you can be proud of the contribution you put in when you see the final products shelved in stores."