When considering where to apply for their first job, many people automatically assume that a big company will provide more benefits and better training. There is also the comfort factor of thinking they will be part of a well-oiled machine with the sense of job security that can bring. Only later do they realise that, if you really want to learn at top speed in fields like merchandising, and pick up maximum experience in the shortest possible time, smaller companies are often the best option.
"Today, successful merchandisers need to be multi-skilled and able to multi-task," says Christine Pace, the operations and marketing director for Hong Kong at Adecco Personnel Limited. She explains that this means knowing how to source products throughout the region, finalise orders with buyers, supervise production, negotiate prices, and ensure shipments are effected on time.
Larger companies often divide these responsibilities between different departments, with only the most senior merchandisers having an overview of everything going on. Therefore, a new joiner might be assigned, for example, to the logistics department and, for the first year or two, only have a comparatively narrow view of the industry.
In contrast, smaller enterprises are more prepared to throw graduates in at the deep end and give them much wider exposure. Usually, they are expected to assist senior merchandisers with whatever comes up and be ready to shoulder responsibility early on. "That gives them a better knowledge of the way the overall business works and prepares them to handle a variety of roles," says Ms Pace. "The trend today is that companies want people who are flexible and able to wear several different hats."
Growth in Asia
Although China continues to drive the growth of manufacturing and trading in Asia, other markets — notably Vietnam, Singapore and Taiwan — have also seen increased demand for merchandisers. This has created new opportunities for experienced professionals in Hong Kong, provided they are willing to travel regularly or relocate overseas. A move to the mainland is still the most likely, since many Hong Kong manufacturers have now not only transferred production there, but also many head office functions. Not surprisingly, this has boosted demand for merchandisers who are fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, and are familiar enough with Chinese and western culture to adapt quickly to any working environment.
Despite the many openings now available, Ms Pace is concerned that careers in merchandising are not promoted as much as they should be. "Some people regard jobs in banking or finance as more attractive, which is limiting the supply of talent in merchandising," she says. "Therefore, Hong Kong companies may need to do more to outline this career path and point out that travel is now an integral part of many jobs."
She also notes that, in merchandising, chances for promotion usually come earlier. "If you are interested in the profession, flexible, and willing to take on a range of duties, you will be able to move up to a senior level far quicker than in a bank," she notes.
Employers looking to fill entry-level merchandising positions normally consider applicants with any academic background. However, for more technical roles, such as in IT and electronics manufacturing, candidates are expected to have related qualifications or significant specialist experience. This is needed to deal proficiently with suppliers, manufacturers and buyers.
According to Ms Pace, the manufacturing and trading sectors currently represent around 25 to 30 per cent of the job openings on Adecco's books and the company has a separate division handling such appointments. "The team in that division are all former merchandisers, so they have an excellent understanding of the industry, as well as of employer and employee needs," she says.
"They know that companies need people who are flexible enough to deal with a US buyer for an order for one type of product and, the next minute, with a European client wanting to buy something with completely different specifications."