Traditionally a vast employer of Hong Kong's human resources, merchandising covers a huge range of products, from everyday white goods to exquisitely crafted luxury items. Today, the different industries that sit under the merchandising umbrella include garments (both woven and knitted); sundries (ranging from watches and clocks to porcelain, ceramics and stationery); gifts and premiums; toys (soft, hard and plush); hard goods; electronic appliances; textiles; footwear; and handbags.
Despite the shifting sands of the Hong Kong economy and a huge leap in perspective across the border, it appears that, within the manufacturing industry, business is booming and recruitment prospects remain equally good. Indeed, these are "very promising," according to Alan Au-Yeung, a consultant at Levin Human Resources Development Ltd, "particularly for those who have work experience in China".
In addition, the need for merchandising personnel seems consistently strong at all levels of the career ladder. "There is still a demand, from clerical or entry posts to senior posts," adds Maggie Tso, operations manager at Staff Service (HK) Co Ltd.
For now, the manufacturing field apparently boasts the lowest unemployment rate in this part of the world. "In our company, over 60 percent of our clients are in the merchandising industry," notes Emily Cheng, general manager of Pacific Regent Global (HK) Consultancy. "Moreover, they are stable, long-term clients and their merchandising vacancies have [almost] never stopped. I can therefore say the recruitment outlook for merchandisers is quite optimistic and still growing - and we expect it to do well in the year 2004."
The economic outlook remains equally encouraging, in part thanks to mainland China's entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the continuingly high demand at all levels in both Hong Kong and the mainland.
"In recent months, the Hong Kong economy has been growing even better than last year," Ms Cheng continues. "We can see the merchandising vacancies are increasing and all merchandising firms are eager to hire merchandisers."
In her opinion, the main reason behind such positive news is that the economies of both the United States and the European Union are also growing. "As the USA is one of our biggest customers, it is very important that the [Iraq] war is now settled. People in the US are going back to their normal lives and they are more willing to buy."
On the local market, meanwhile, seasonal factors currently stimulating merchandising business and local buying activities include upcoming festivals such as Christmas and the Chinese New Year.
Furthermore, overseas investors are showing strong interest in the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) and this, in turn, is having a particularly beneficial knock-on effect on garment merchandisers. "Some companies are investigating the possibilities of investing in Hong Kong or, through Hong Kong, to enter China by setting up their offices here," Ms Cheng explains. "Indirectly, based on these factors, merchandisers are busy developing products and following up orders."
Working with China
Both short- and long-term, opportunities for Hong Kong merchandisers on the mainland appear rosy, thanks in part to China's entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the subsequent rise in the number of manufacturing bases across the border.
"There are now more factories operating in the PRC, which produce all sorts of items," Mr Au-Yeung of Levin consultants explains. "In the short term, Hong Kong merchandisers can act as a bridge between overseas buyers and manufacturers. In the long term, merchandisers can develop a larger client base in different countries. GDP for Hong Kong and China will therefore, hopefully, increase."
Certainly, as most suppliers are from the mainland, merchandisers can expect to be requested to travel very frequently over the border. Indeed, some companies have already started shifting their work forces from Hong Kong to the mainland - or simply employ locals from the mainland as their major workforce. "But, skills-wise, Hong Kong employees are still more sophisticated and of higher quality," says Staff Service's Ms Tso. "Thus, employers still tend to offer senior posts to HK employees, either stationed in or frequently travelling to the PRC."
As a result, there are many opportunities for Hong Kong merchandisers to develop their careers on the mainland, despite competition from local, generally lower-paid staff. "Foreign and Hong Kong companies would like to bring the same working systems to their China offices," Pacific Regent Global general manager Ms Cheng notes. "Generally, companies would like Hong Kong merchandisers to train up Chinese merchandisers, as we all know that Chinese labour cost is much lower than in Hong Kong. Hong Kong merchandisers can take up roles as trainers."
In addition, she notes that placing Hong Kong merchandisers in China produces more immediate results, as they can handle problems "instantly" with mainland vendors and factories. "The biggest differences between Hong Kong and mainland people are [in terms of] character and mentality," she adds. "It seems that Hong Kong people are more flexible about handling ad hoc problems and more responsible, efficient and effective at their jobs."
However, Ms Cheng warns that Chinese merchandisers are already dealing directly with overseas buyers and becoming more open to the world. "In another words, while mainland people are not mature enough to take up the role of dealing with [business] overseas, there are opportunities for Hong Kong merchandisers in mainland China - but this privilege will gradually get less," she concludes.