Mention the world of fashion and many people will immediately think either of their favourite designers or of celebrity models on the runway. However, the industry offers many other positions which may not be quite as much in the public eye, but nevertheless provide their own measure of excitement and challenges.
Joanna Ng's current job is a case in point. She is senior merchandiser for global apparel firm H & M Hennes & Mauritz (Far East) Ltd and, as such, plays a vital part in co-ordinating the design, production and international delivery of major orders.
"Essentially, my role is to take an apparel design through the entire manufacturing process," Ms Ng explains. "I serve as a go-between for our corporate headquarters in Sweden, customers from around the world, and our factories in China and South-east Asia." Specifically, she is responsible for children's underwear produced in Asia. The process involves collaboration with the head office and factories on everything from price quotations to sampling and shipment.
The role of a merchandiser is not always straightforward or precisely spelled out in a contract or job description. Nevertheless, Ms Ng's previous merchandising position in ladies' underwear manufacturing allowed her to get hands-on experience and to handle a diverse range of responsibilities.
"Once we accept an order, we follow up immediately on sampling," Ms Ng says. "After that, an array of production and coordination tasks will come along in a quick succession." The sample is based on the buyer's exact specifications and, when it is approved, the merchandiser will then review the total expected costs for raw materials, transportation and manufacturing." When an order goes into production, things are likely to get even busier. It is necessary to keep checking on the sampling status, quality of raw materials and the finished product, and to ensure that factory operations are running smoothly.
"There are so many nitty-gritty details that a merchandiser has to oversee," Ms Ng notes. "These include colour matching, shipment schedules, last minute changes to order quantities, and even design modifications." She adds that it is also necessary to arrange a number of wash tests to check if the fabric will shrink or the colour fade with repeated use. Minor slip-ups can turn out to be costly. Therefore, regular meetings are held with the quality control department and the factories, in order to pre-empt possible problems. Previously, Ms Ng was also required to visit the factory in Shenzhen once or twice every week to check on progress.
She puts her own success down to having a meticulous eye for detail and being very well organised. It has also helped to be inquisitive, in the sense of wanting to know everything about the different aspects of the production process. "For instance, the wrong choice of elastic band could ruin an order, so the merchandiser must really be attentive to the minutest details," Ms Ng says. "I have found that it always helps to ask questions. If you don't query the things that are unclear, orders can end up with big problems."
After graduating from the Chinese University of Hong Kong with a degree in business administration, Ms Ng first worked for a trading company dealing in food processing machinery. "Every machine had different specifications and it was important not to mix them up when selling to customers," she recalls. The experience taught her the importance of being organised and well prepared for possible contingencies. From there, she moved on to work for a lingerie manufacturer as a sales coordinator, but the work was basically merchandising. After three years learning the business, Ms Ng felt the time was right to add to her academic qualifications and therefore signed on for a one-year master's programme in engineering business management at the University of Warwick in the UK.
Though a relevant degree obviously helps in the world of merchandising, one of the most important things is to have a good grasp of English. "Nowadays, merchandisers have to work closely with clients, colleagues and factory staff from all parts of the world," says Ms Ng. "English has become the common language for communication in our business."
In general, the sector may not be among the highest paid, but for those who acquire the necessary skills and professional experience, it offers considerably more job security than many other fields. Even if the overall economy is struggling, there are always openings for merchandisers and the work can give a real sense of achievement. "The satisfaction comes from knowing that you have solved problems for your customers and that you have a big role to play in getting beautiful, finished apparel to department stores around the world," Ms Ng says.