Look for challenge

by Ella Lee

Kelly Shum, merchandising vice president, Contempo Limited

Despite its harsh reputation for long hours, intense pressure and heavy workload, merchandising still attracts many career professionals and new businesses

Kelly Shum has been a merchandiser for over 20 years. While most people tend to choose an easy life, she prefers a career that is filled with challenges.

"It allows me to be exposed to a variety of new things every day, from the materials, products and people I work with," she says. Ms Shum joined Contempo Limited as a merchandising assistant in 1981, when she was a Form Five graduate. "I was referred by a friend, and my boss at first only regarded me as a summer job helper," she recalls. Even so, she still worked wholeheartedly and did everything from sending faxes and telexes to filing and following up orders. "Everything was new to me and there's a lot to learn," she says.

Ms Shum's hard work eventually paid off. The following year, she was assigned to follow the footstep of a dedicated mentor and underwent a series of on-the-job training. She continued her career climb and became a merchandising manager before she emigrated to Canada in 1991.

When she was in Canada, she worked as a sourcing manager, playing the role of the customer she had served previously in Contempo. In 1994, she returned to Hong Kong and rejoined Contempo.

So far in Hong Kong, Ms Shum has served one employer only. "I'm loyal. And most importantly, our boss has treated us really well, and has been giving us a lot of opportunities," she says. Besides, she finds the company's management supportive, helping to solve problems instead of exerting additional pressure. As a leader, she thinks this positive and caring attitude is essential.

Now as a merchandising vice president, Ms Shum serves around ten major clients. Besides flying to the US twice a year to present new designs and discuss trends with clients, she's also responsible for a number of visits to the company's off-shore offices. When she is in Hong Kong, she spends most of her time following up with her team members who are delegated to work with both clients and suppliers.

Diverse skills

Merchandisers at Contempo mainly focus on production and order follow up with clients and suppliers. She points out that the job duties of today's merchandisers are better defined and they are not as varied as their predecessors who were involved in everything from meeting customer to every stage of production until product delivery. "Nowadays there are actually more 'paper merchandisers' who do not have thorough technical knowledge about the materials and workmanship. And that's why we have a technician working together with merchandiser to assess the quality," she says.

Nowadays, Ms Shum usually works about ten to twelve hours a day. The job has become more challenging because of the faster turnaround time. "For example, we might have had 90 to 120 days to meet an order placed a few years ago. But now we may only have 60 to 75 days," she says. As a result, merchandisers must work more efficiently with better planning and communications.

She adds that today's merchandisers must possess good market sense and communication skills. One should also be open and willing to learn, particularly those who are new to the business. "We are willing to hire less experienced persons providing that they are eager to learn," she says.

A university degree is not required in their profession at the moment, but it could become a trend. At present, not all of Contempo's merchandising managers are degree holders, but Ms Shum cautions, "It could be the case in the ten years' time."

Prepare for a challenging career

  • More potential players are entering the market
  • A university degree not necessary but helps to land a job
  • Good market sense and communication skills vital to fruitful negotiation
  • Total commitment essential to career escalation
  • Heavy workload a norm in the profession


Taken from Career Times 23 June 2006
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