Garment merchandisers play a vital role within the fashion industry bridging the gap between the supply of products and consumer demand for them and acting as the link between designers, manufacturers and retail stores. They help to translate ideas from the designer's drawing-board to the factory production line and oversee the manufacture and distribution of finished garments which must find ready buyers and be priced at a level which ensures commercial success.
The work of garment merchandisers has changed significantly over recent years, says Catherine Chan, deputy general manager of Walker Shop Footwear Ltd. "Traditionally their job was simple and straightforward," she notes. "They needed to follow up orders and ensure on-time delivery of the exact quantity."
However, because of ever-changing market demand, higher customer expectations and keener competition within the retail industry, the role has become more complicated and challenging. Nowadays, a garment merchandiser's work is varied and demanding and no written job description could cover everything. Basic duties include working closely with designers, dealing with suppliers about how to manufacture the designs, liaising on final specifications, working out budgets, coordinating delivery schedules and performing quality control.
"There are many things to handle and follow up, from the materials used to cutting, dyeing, pattern printing and size fitting. Things as small as a single button or a thread on a cloth can make a difference," says May Yeung, senior merchandiser responsible for retail sales of clothing and accessories for Hoso Place Ltd, a subsidiary of Walker Shop. Attention to detail is, therefore, an essential quality which means that women, with their natural eye for detail, are more likely to work in this field.
Today's garment merchandisers have to keep pace with rapid changes in market demand and the evolving technologies used in manufacturing and production. To understand customer needs, they make regular monthly visits to retail outlets and receive frequent updates from frontline sales staff about customer feedback. In order to monitor developments in sourcing, site visits are made every couple of weeks to mainland factories for meetings with suppliers and to inspect production.
In garment merchandising there is no "golden rule", so it is important to be able to think on one's feet. For example, size specifications can vary with different designs. "A senior merchandiser can give general guidelines but more junior staff must learn from experience and adjust case by case," says Ms Chan. An intuitive sense of style and an understanding of fashion is therefore needed to cope with the unlimited combination of designs with different cuts, prints and materials.
When facing difficulties, a merchandiser should be able to respond positively and act flexibly. Though they need the ability to work independently, it is also essential to be a team player as many day-to-day problems are actually solved by drawing on the skills of different people. For example, Ms Yeung says she has regular discussions with designers and suppliers looking for their suggestions and assistance.
Few companies offer formal training programmes for merchandisers, relying instead on giving more hands-on experience. To get ahead, newcomers should be inquisitive and eager to learn, and according to Ms Chan, "They should be open-minded and willing to communicate and cooperate with others. Outgoing, energetic and sociable candidates are usually preferred."
With the retail sector recovering, Ms Chan expects demand for experienced garment merchandisers to increase. Graduates in fashion and textiles can start as assistant merchandisers. "You do not have to start in a large organisation," advises Ms Chan. "Working for a small or medium-sized company allows you to gain exposure and learn the related skill-sets for merchandising."
Noting the relatively high turnover of junior merchandisers, Ms Chan advises newcomers to work hard, be patient and not expect a high salary at the outset. "Once you acquire know-how and experience, you will be irreplaceable and can advance quickly," she says.
It usually takes about five years to become a senior merchandiser and another five for promotion to the position of merchandising manager. Once at management level, the focus switches from daily operations to higher-level communication and negotiations with suppliers. For those with the interest and ambition, it is possible to become a brand manager responsible for the branding and management of shops and supervising a sales team.
Ironically, it is the challenges of a garment merchandiser's job which often provide the most satisfaction. For example, the implementation of new ideas with cost and time constraints may be difficult but, as Ms Yeung says, "There is nothing more rewarding than successfully introducing innovative designs which get a good response from the market and meet the company's target."
Ms Yeung personally treasures the friendship and close working relationships she has developed with suppliers which go well beyond normal business relationships. "We are really friends who will share, advise and help one another," she says.