Hong Kong's merchandising industry was less affected than others by the economic downturn and is now set fair for a period of sustained growth. Experienced professionals are in high demand and newcomers to the sector can choose between a range of great opportunities.
"The turnover rate in the industry is high and there are a lot of opportunities around," says Winnie Kwok, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer of Contempo Limited. The Hong Kong-based company specialises in global sourcing and product development for apparel and hard goods and has 18 offices around the world.
"Retaining people is our priority," says Ms Kwok, who emphasises that a merchandising business depends on the communication skills and problem-solving expertise of its staff. As an effective middleman, they have to place orders on behalf of customers, ensure all instructions are fully carried out, and monitor every step of the process from sourcing raw materials through to the delivery of final products to the client. "We have a vital role in making sure the whole process is executed smoothly," she adds.
Even though the local manufacturing sector has relocated most production facilities to the mainland, merchandisers have continued to thrive. "Hong Kong is still very important for sourcing and as a communication centre," says Ms Kwok. "Overseas buyers will continue to concentrate their activities here. China will open up further with the WTO agreement, but Hong Kong will still have a major role to play."
Merchandisers are already familiar with the need to coordinate orders and oversee production in factories on the mainland and in other countries, such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. "This gives them a unique advantage and, with the market outlook favourable, things are very positive," says Ms Kwok, "particularly if you work for a solid company."
Contempo's own strategy for expansion is to ride the wave of globalisation. The intention is to protect customers' interests by sourcing more widely and ensuring problem-free delivery of goods. "Global coverage is the way forward and gives us a lot of flexibility," Ms Kwok explains. It also affords any merchandiser unlimited opportunities to meet people of different backgrounds and cultures, either in Hong Kong or when travelling overseas.
This is just one of the things that causes Ms Kwok to recommend the field unreservedly. "Once you are in merchandising, you'll love it," she says. "You'll never get bored and, as you build up experience, will only increase your range of options."
In the current environment, promotion prospects are generally bright. The usual progression sees an assistant merchandiser moving up to more senior positions in a specialist division before going on to top jobs at managerial or executive grade. New recruits need at least a Form 7 education and one year's practical work experience. Their English should be good, and having a diploma or degree in a discipline related to garments and apparel is a definite plus. Starting salaries for juniors are between HK$7,000 and 10,000, depending on experience and qualifications.
Contempo provides relevant training for new joiners, and more senior staff take job-related courses to enhance their skills in management, leadership and delegation. Failure to delegate well is a characteristic of many merchandisers, which has to be dealt with. "Traditionally, they want to grab hold of every single thing and handle it themselves," says Ms Kwok. "If they don't know how to delegate, they must be taught." The result is a clear division of labour, better use of manpower, a more natural workload for everyone, and less frustration for junior staff.
"Once we realised that poor delegation was closely tied to reasons for staff turnover, we focused on solving the problem," Ms Kwok says. Senior staff are now also assessed on how well they share responsibility with their younger colleagues. To put a stop to the unhealthy habit of consistently staying late and working long hours, staff have been told to set priorities and manage their time better
With expansion plans likely to mean another fast-paced year, the company actively encourages open communication and provides different channels for staff to air any job-related problems, as well as to share experiences and information. By creating a "family-like" atmosphere and, for example, allowing staff to take an extra day's leave on their birthdays, Ms Kwok hope that satisfaction in the workplace will translate into yet another successful year for the overall business.