Dedication required to make it as a merchandiser

by Ella Lee

Fanny Cheung, merchandising vice president, Contempo Limited

There are many openings for merchandisers in the textile and clothing industry, but that's partly because of the high rate of turnover

The work of a merchandiser is known to be fast-paced, exciting, diverse, and governed by production deadlines and commercial demands. With that comes a lot of pressure, which is something Fanny Cheung, merchandising vice president for Contempo, has come to accept and learned to deal with during more than two decades in the field. While some people find it hard to take the pace or prefer to move into other areas, she finds that merchandising still provides the challenges and job satisfaction that first attracted her to the profession.

"Every day, I come across so many different things and people from all walks of life including customers, manufacturers and material suppliers," says Ms Cheung. "Some are easy to get on with, others are rude and choosy, but there are always new challenges and valuable opportunities for you to learn and grow." Ms Cheung's first full-time job was actually in general administration, but the work soon became routine and boring, so she readily accepted an offer to switch into merchandising. After spells with two other companies, she found her niche with Contempo and has now been with them for close to 20 years. "I have witnessed the company's development from a small local firm with around 30 people to what it is today -- global company with 18 branches and over 450 staff throughout the world," she says.

Nowadays, the level of competition in the textile and clothing industry has inevitably become much keener. Customers have higher expectations of products and services, and want to pay less for more. "They demand quality goods, on-time delivery, prompt and professional service. To comply with all that is a real challenge and nevertheless an interesting part of this trade," says Ms Cheung.

New technology

She also points out that while the introduction of videoconferencing, new software and broadband links have made certain parts of the daily operation a lot easier, these new technologies have also lengthened the working day. "We are expected to reply faster and may have to communicate with overseas customers and colleagues at midnight our time because of the time difference," she says, adding that providing these round-the-clock services can sometimes make it seem like working in a convenience store.

With the sector booming, demand for merchandising professionals always outnumbers supply, partly due to the relatively high rate of staff turnover. Ms Cheung believes too many new recruits are initially attracted by the more superficial aspects of the profession and are not ready to cope with the pressure and heavy workload which are an unavoidable part of the job.

She also explains that junior merchandisers must accept the need to learn everything from the ground up, which will mean handling some routine tasks. "They will have to prepare documents, check colours, cut swatches and follow up the delivery of samples," she notes. When promoted to become senior merchandisers and managers, they will be handling orders, sourcing products, and coordinating with customers on the choice of designs and delivery schedules. It will also be necessary to develop new products and markets and ensure high standards of quality control. Along the way, they will be expected to check factories, liaise with customers, make overseas trips, negotiate prices, and take part in staff training.

Seize opportunities

Despite the range of responsibilities she has to handle and the pressures they bring, Ms Cheung says she has never considered doing anything else. "You have to face problems and tackle crises with a positive attitude," she says. "It's important to seize every opportunity to learn something new and to remember that most business deals are a matter of give and take. If we conclude a deal and deliver beautiful merchandise that sells, the satisfaction is quite beyond words."

She predicts that the China market will continue to offer great opportunities and that buyers or merchandisers in Hong Kong should gear themselves to make the most of these. Generally, to do well in the profession, an individual must acquire relevant specialist experience, and have a genuine passion for the business. On average, it takes around ten years to pick up all the skills and experience to become a merchandising manager, but with the needs for new talent and the higher demand for better and faster service, people are now being promoted faster.

Currently, the basic requirement for entry-level merchandisers is a Form five qualification. However, companies which take a long-term approach and aim to groom future corporate leaders tend to prefer candidates with higher diplomas or university degrees. "Applicants must have common sense and should be diligent, willing to learn, and open to whatever challenges come up," says Ms Cheung. Employers also look for good communications skills and language abilities in English, Cantonese and Putonghua. Nevertheless, the most essential things are a passion in the field and a real commitment to making it one's career.

High-demand profession

  • Customers have higher expectations of products and services, and want to pay less for more
  • Videoconferencing, new software and broadband links have made certain parts of the job easier but they also lengthened the working day as instant reply and real-time communication with overseas customers are expected
  • Demand for merchandising professionals always outnumbers supply due to the relatively high rate of staff turnover
  • Junior merchandisers must learn everything from the ground up

Taken from Career Times 10 February 2006
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