As footwear manufacturers have inevitably moved out of Hong Kong for cost reasons, the role of footwear merchandisers has become increasingly important in helping retailers optimise the performance of the most detail-driven retail environments.
Pheabe Chan, assistant buying manager, Mirabell - Fiorucci says that "the departure of the manufacturing industry created a new focal point for footwear presentation and sales in Hong Kong. Footwear companies started to adapt more sophisticated merchandising to improve product presentation to customers so as to capture greater market share".
Poised to meet the needs of retailers, a footwear merchandiser's core activities include order processing, sourcing, inventory management, stock optimisation, brand interpretation, product research and trend analysis.
"Externally we mainly deal with factories in Asia and Europe," Ms Chan explains. "Internally we work closely with our marketing department, product designers and visual merchandisers to come up with new designs, colour schemes and themes for our next collection."
To the layman, the job of footwear merchandiser may seem the same as that of their garment industry counterparts. However, as Ms Chan describes, there is a major difference.
"Over the past 10 years, garment merchandising has developed into a systematic and organised business whereas the operation of footwear merchandising is still very much based on hands-on experience passed on to us by older generations."
Another difference between the two seemingly similar professions, Ms Chan points out, is that there are comprehensive professional courses well in place for people who want to branch into garment merchandising, whilst footwear merchandising hasn't yet become an academic discipline as such, although the Clothing Industry Training Authority (CITA) is rectifying this (see related article).
Currently, however, a candidate is not expected to possess great technical knowledge in the footwear industry to get into business, which also means that anyone who has a genuine interest can give it a go.
Stepping into the business may not be that difficult in Ms Chan's experience, although it takes a lot of hard work, a certain toughness and the patience to become successful. "A recognised degree in design or merchandising is definitely a great asset, but after that it depends on the person's career aspirations, determination and passion."
As a university graduate majoring in Chinese Literature who started a career as a buyer trainee, Ms Chan's success started with a passion for fashion. She says that "nowadays, you may start as a junior merchandiser with a monthly salary of around $7000".
"With a lot of hard work, you may be promoted to senior merchandiser in two to three years. And if your performance is recognised by the management, you may find yourself climbing up the ladder quicker than most. But in general, you may still need to spend 10 years to be recognised as an experienced merchandiser."
Demanding an 11-hour daily schedule plus weekly visits to Mainland China and frequent business trips to Europe, Ms Chan's profession requires a great deal of both mental and physical strength from her. "It's true that you get to visit lots of places around the world. Today you're in Germany and the next in London. It's pretty tough and challenging." However, the job never lacks satisfaction. "It gives me great joy and satisfaction when my chosen products become very popular and are appreciated by customers."
Ms Chan describes her profession as an ongoing learning process with all sorts of things to take on board besides the essential communication skills.
"You cannot rely on others to guide you through your job step by step. It's up to you to bring your skills and knowledge into your choice of profession; to create your own career."
A step in the right direction
"There is plenty of talent in Hong Kong, but there have to be opportunities for these people to spread their wings," says Jacky Ma, an instructor with the Clothing Industry Training Authority.
In view of the northward movement of manufacturers, CITA offers a comprehensive training course that provides students with an opportunity to express their creative and technical skills while acquiring a working understanding of how to design, produce, merchandise and market footwear. As Mr Ma explains:
"The Hong Kong footwear industry has undergone a significant transition over the years and has grown out of the mechanical stage to focus on footwear design as well as the more important roles of merchandising."
In consideration of irregular working hours and frequent business trips outside Hong Kong, the course is conducted in self-study mode with a duration of six to 18 months, and is comprised of three core modules - pattern design and construction, footwear making, testing and quality control; and three elective modules - introduction to footwear manufacturing, shoe sizing, last and grading, and operation and application of computer-aided shoemaking design systems.
The course also offers learning assistance via tutorial classes and counselling hotline services. A training centre has also been set up in Dongguan to cater to those whose jobs are based on the mainland.
"The course is tailor-made for those who have a genuine interest in the footwear industry, be it as merchandisers or retail managers. They've already reached a certain level of understanding about the industry. What this course has to offer will further enhance their career prospects within the industry," Mr Ma says.