Career Path

Put together your own career

Ruth Benny

Retail management
Elliot Lee and Karen Chau Store managers IKEA

Before marketing any type of product or service it's first necessary to conduct rigorous testing. If you want to succeed in retail management, it is no different. There, the potential problem areas to look out for are things like the lack of a service mindset or an underdeveloped attention to detail. Next, be sure to check the amount of creativity, dedication, commitment and the ability to fit in. Then, meticulously test all the parts under pressure and, as long they hold together, you may have the raw materials for a career in retail.

Karen Chau and Elliot Lee, both new store managers for IKEA, display these personal qualities every day. Entering the profession with very different backgrounds, they have followed similar career paths. Ms Chau, a graduate in biology, first tried her hand at teaching for a year. Mr Lee studied hospitality management then worked for several years in service roles in restaurants and hotels. The pair have been with IKEA, part of the Dairy Farm empire in Hong Kong, for over six years and, in that time, have gained broad-based experience within the organisation. Their rapid rise through the ranks is the result of a good match between employer and employee. At IKEA, personal qualities are valued as much as experience and qualifications.

Mr Lee recalls he was first attracted to the industry because "retail is everywhere and a huge potential market". Ms Chau had prepared for the world of retail by working as a sales assistant in a fashion store at weekends while still at school. She is sure that this experience was noticed when she applied to join IKEA's management trainee programme.

Broad experience
Weekend shoppers know that, when trying to squeeze a new IKEA sofa into an apartment of a few hundred square feet, every centimetre counts. However, when gaining practical experience in retail management with IKEA there is plenty of room to manoeuvre! Ms Chau and Mr Lee have experienced the different working procedures and unique environment of several departments. But they stress the importance of understanding the two main areas of the business: furniture and home accessories.

"Retail is everywhere and a huge potential market"

Ms Chau moved departments every two or three months. After being on the frontline to gain an understanding of customer needs, she transferred to the back office to learn product merchandising. Each rotation was based on a project to stimulate and challenge. During her training, she also had the chance to visit IKEA's Swedish headquarters.

Mr Lee's path has been more one of "shifting responsibilities", having spent time in customer service, operations and sales before becoming store manager in June last year.

Apart from on-the-job learning, all IKEA staff have the opportunity to take training courses covering product knowledge, PC skills and languages.

Passion pays
Ms Chau stresses that, to succeed in the industry, "you need a passion for retail". One way to prove that passion is by starting as a part-timer. The turnover for such staff is high and stores often advertise, especially during the peak season. For non-graduates seeking a way in, this is a viable option and graduates can consider working during holidays or at weekends to gain experience. Prior to graduation, they can apply for the management training programme which is split into different specialist streams for logistics, customer service and design.

Apart from a love of retailing, an eye for detail is important. "Retail is detail", says Mr Lee explaining that creativity is highly valued and in-the-box thinkers may have difficulties. Other qualities sought are energy, open-mindedness and willingness to be a team player.

Prepared to work
When asked about the key responsibilities, Ms Chau quickly piped up "achieving the sales target is very important". To meet this, store managers will devise product promotions built around a theme. The current one, launched last September, is 'Living with Children'.

Store managers also take overall responsibility for budgets, staff and displays. Mr Lee favours MBWA (management by walking around), preferring to be visible in the store and approachable.

"In IKEA, we have a unique way of doing things," he says. "The hierarchy is very flat and we call everyone by first names, even nicknames."

Ten hours per day is the norm, worked flexibly. Start and finish times vary, but weekends are especially gruelling.

Retail management is not for the faint of heart but, if you are looking to be more than just part of the furniture, the rewards can be enormous.

China Opportunities

Retail is a booming business over the border, although a very different animal from that in Hong Kong. Opportunities do exist for those with an edge over their mainland counterparts.

Large cities are not short of talent. To succeed, it is necessary to bring experience, the required language skills, plus the willingness to adapt and move around. Fresh graduates should gain valuable experience in Hong Kong before thinking about venturing north.


Taken from Career Times 16 January 2004, p. 28
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