For the lover of good food, a visit to a specialty food retail store is like a high-speed trip around the world. Everything is there under one roof - from Italian fettuccine to Indian naan bread, Japanese mushrooms to Scotch salmon, New England clam chowder to Thai tom yum soup. Selecting which of these delicacies to place before Hong Kong consumers is no easy task, but it does give a truly international perspective and tremendous cultural variety to the role of the food merchandiser.
"Nowadays, there are so many choices and people should be able to make the most of them," says Ben Lam, food division manager for specialty store City Super Ltd. "The food we eat should not be seen simply as fuel for the body, but something to give us extra enjoyment. Learning where it comes from and how to prepare it can also give us a better understanding of other parts of the world."
To meet a satisfied customer is the most rewarding part of any day
For a specialty food retailer, the daily challenge lies in stocking a range of products which generate steady sales while also being able to tempt customers to try something new. "Customers do not come here to shop for basics or to bargain on price," says Mr Lam. "They are looking for freshness, quality and items they cannot find anywhere else."
Hong Kong may have a reputation as a cosmopolitan centre for fine cuisine, says Mr Lam, but most ethnic dishes served in restaurants here are adapted for local tastes. "Our aim, therefore, is to import foods that give people the chance to experience the original taste," he explains. "The best results are achieved by using the same ingredients and recipes as in the country the dish comes from. This also helps in retaining the unique character." To promote this idea, Mr Lam has plans for a series of themed events at which invited overseas chefs will prepare their favourite dishes during live cooking demonstrations.
Like many people in the food business, Mr Lam's interest stemmed from his own love of cooking. He was able to convert a hobby into the start of a successful career by joining Oliver's Delicatessen as an operational assistant around 18 years ago. Working there taught him a great deal about service standards and customer preferences. It also equipped him for a move to Seibu, the Japanese department store, where he managed the food market division focusing on western food products. Subsequently, when City Super needed someone to head up merchandising for their internationally themed stores, Mr Lam, with his "cross cultural" background, was exactly what they were looking for.
The store's buying team is given specific instructions to find new products. And, as customers become increasingly health-conscious and savvy about what they eat, more attention must be paid to nutritional content, ingredients and points of origin.
Mr Lam stresses that only those with a dual passion for food and for retailing can be successful food merchandisers. "It is important to combine those qualities because the working hours in this business can be long and you need to enjoy what you do," he says. Persistence and being unafraid of failure are also basic requirements. Not every product is well received or catches on, but that is no reason to stop trying something new.
Trainee merchandisers with university degrees are given on-the-job training which concentrates on team building and gaining in-store experience. "Good team spirit is essential," emphasises Mr Lam. "There will be times when new products you have introduced in the store are not selling well. That is when it helps to have the close support of your colleagues." Regular briefings are arranged to enhance product knowledge, and the buying team makes frequent store visits as part of their training. "Hands-on experience is vital," Mr Lam adds. "It allows trainees to learn about and evaluate the effectiveness of things like shelf management and promotional events."
Customers remain the most important source of information and feedback and, therefore, every opportunity is taken to interact with them and hear what they have to say. "To meet a satisfied customer is the most rewarding part of any day," says Mr Lam. "That is what makes all the time and effort we put in seem worthwhile."
As disposable incomes increase in mainland China, the number of upscale or specialty shopping outlets can be expected to grow. "The overall retail market is changing rapidly," says Mr Lam, "and there will be new opportunities for overseas companies to open stores as soon as the food import regulations are relaxed."
He advises this is partly to do with the implementation of WTO-related conditions, but the timing of any new investment or store openings will be driven more by market demand.