Merchandisers setting new trend

by Nicole Wong

Eleni Wang, president and chief operating officer, Tristate Holdings Ltd

In the global fashion industry, the role of the merchandiser is becoming increasingly complex

While some businesses involved in the global fashion industry have been reducing the scale of merchandising operations in Hong Kong over the last few years, Tristate Holdings Ltd has been following a different course. The locally listed company has been steadily transforming its merchandising activities from the traditional practice of order taking and processing to being more sales-oriented and proactive with clients. Meanwhile, their Hong Kong headquarters continues to serve as a centre to oversee material sourcing, product development and trade finance activities throughout the region.

As a major garment manufacturer mainly supplying the US market from production facilities throughout Asia, the company has been focusing on recruiting merchandisers who can work well with overseas contacts to guarantee short-cycle manufacturing and quick turnaround times. They have also been concentrating on initiatives to improve staff retention?something which remains a key management objective.

Turnover among merchandisers is relatively high, especially after Chinese New Year when people have collected their bonuses, which is why Tristate has concentrated on retention issues. "We now boast a low turnover rate of 3 to 4 per cent," says Eleni Wang, president and chief operating officer. "Apart from a small number of staff who quit within their first year, most of our merchandisers stay for more than eight years and enjoy fruitful careers."

Careful selection

A well-established recruitment policy is the basis for everything. It begins with careful selection of recruitment channels, thorough screening of applications, and in-depth interviews, during which candidates are assessed on both their technical knowledge and personal attributes. Only those with at least five years' experience in merchandising will be considered, while sound knowledge of women's and woven fashions and an understanding of the manufacturing process are essential. Successful candidates must also be detail-oriented and self-motivated, have excellent communication skills and be fluent in English. Applicants will meet a number of different interviewers who then make a collective decision about which people to hire. "We regard the three-month probation period as an important part of the process," Ms Wang says. "Recruits are held to a very high standard and we only keep those who deliver satisfactory performance."

To bring newcomers up to speed, Tristate provides extensive training in technical matters, customer service and other necessary skills. The initial programme covers instruction in the company's critical path timetable, its automated system for procuring materials, the procedure for following up orders, and details of the manufacturing process in factories. On-the-job training is also given on individual customer requirements. This is done through interaction with customer service officers and studying samples, materials and finished items. Training in fashion influences and fabric trends is conducted by various in-house managers and can lead on to further external courses in specialist areas.

Fair rewards

To ensure high achievers are well rewarded, merchandisers at Tristate have annual performance reviews. They are assessed largely on their ability to meet production milestones and to offer value-added solutions for customers, which should also allow lead times to be reduced. Financial awards are given for the completion of major projects, for surpassing budgets and for achievements which go beyond the scope of job requirements. Successful merchandisers can follow a clear path to progress from assistant manager to manager, team leader and then to even more diverse roles.

"Those with talent and ambition can go far, since merchandisers play a very critical role in our company," explains Ms Wang. "They can go into sales or production later in their career, and we even have examples of successful factory managers who started out as merchandisers." The company's aim is to provide a wide range of experience in dealing with different labels and interacting with various customers. This helps in developing staff and giving them a broader understanding of the industry.

Promising prospects

She also points out that the role of a merchandiser has become highly sophisticated in today's fashion industry. Rather than being mainly the checking of samples and order follow-up it was in the past, the job has now become highly complex. It involves frequent communication with customers around the world and entails offering value-added solutions for anything from cost reduction to increasing production efficiency and spotting new fashion trends. "It requires a high level of intellectual and practical creativity," Ms Wang says. "Therefore, companies and candidates should assess if they are the right fit for each other."

In looking for such a range of attributes, companies recruiting merchandisers are increasingly aware of the need to offer good compensation packages and to provide long-term career opportunities. "The demand for talent in sales and production is on the rise, and most senior staff in both fields come from merchandising," Ms Wang adds. "That makes a position in merchandising an excellent entry point to the fashion business, because you can learn about so many different aspects of the industry."

Fashion leaders

  • Focus on recruiting and retaining the best talent by offering long-term career prospects
  • Merchandising seen as a good entry point to the fashion industry
  • Diverse skills needed to deal with factories and customers in overseas markets
  • Rewards and recognition closely linked with performance and the achievement of set targets
  • Training is designed to give an understanding of the breadth of the industry

Taken from Career Times 29 April 2005
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