Merchandising success based on diverse skills

by Nicole Wong

Bernia Chan, director and merchandising manager, Fenix Hong Kong

Fashion sector gears up for business changes and expanding markets

As overseas markets change and competition from Chinese manufacturers heats up, local players in the fashion and textile industry are constantly looking for business improvements.

Much of the responsibility for this rests on the shoulders of merchandisers whose jobs touch just about every facet of the production cycle.

With over 15 years' experience in the field, Bernia Chan, director and merchandising manager for Fenix Hong Kong, has seen the full scope of the industry. After initially working for three years as an assistant merchandiser with an American company, she joined Fenix in 1992. "At the time, we were focusing on Japan and I had the chance to get familiar with the entire business process, from research and design to production and marketing," she recalls.

Ms Chan was able to branch out further when Fenix expanded into European markets in 1997. As team supervisor and later assistant manager, she had to learn about different regulations and saw a whole new side of the global fashion business. Having built up a substantial network in Spain, France and England, she was promoted to her current position, where she oversees internal communications, client relationships, sales and marketing strategies, and HR policy.

Client contact

"We place special emphasis on training graduates," Ms Chan says. New recruits usually start as merchandising trainees and complete a thorough orientation programme. They are taught communication and presentation skills and receive daily updates on market news relevant to their future role. "We also give trainees the opportunity to come into contact with clients as part of the learning process," she adds. "By taking on real responsibilities, junior merchandisers can start to work independently more quickly."

Graduates in any discipline are welcome to apply, but they must be sensitive to market trends and proficient in English. Self-confidence and a passion for the business are also prerequisites. Starting salaries are in the range of HK$11,000 to HK$12,000 and promotion to the level of merchandiser can be expected within two years. For a long-term career, it's essential to have a sense of entrepreneurship in order to establish new lines of business and unlock new markets.

"The new generation of merchandisers must be self-motivated and ready to approach potential clients with concrete designs," Ms Chan explains. "These initiatives can really pay off substantially and give people the chance to exercise their creativity."

Cost efficiency

Competition from the mainland will obviously pose new challenges for Hong Kong's fashion sector. However, Ms Chan points out, with the right strategic moves, these can become opportunities. For example, to maximise cost efficiency, Fenix is transferring most of its lower-end production to subsidiaries in Eastern and Northern China. Improved quality assurance measures at mainland factories and new initiatives in staff management will help the company to maintain levels of profitability.

Since many European fashion brands are also moving production to China, Ms Chan believes Hong Kong can benefit by acting as a marketing and product development centre. "There should be many opportunities to negotiate new business, given that so much investment is going into the medium to high-end fashion lines," she notes.

Ms Chan advises young people interested in developing a career in China to acquire the necessary skill set and an international perspective. "Fresh graduates should expect to put in a few years of hard work first. Although the salary levels may not be on a par with Hong Kong, there will be substantial gains in the long run," she says.

Fashion sense

  • The merchandiser's role covers research, design, production, development and marketing functions
  • Training for new recruits emphasises market knowledge and early contact with clients
  • Entrepreneurial flair is essential for proposing designs and initiating business relationships
  • The Hong Kong fashion industry can act as a link between European fashion retailers and mainland manufacturers

Taken from Career Times 12 May 2006
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