Up until four years ago, Alan Jones spent much of his career as a buyer for major home-improvement retail companies. Today, he is the regional sourcing manager for Kingfisher Asia Limited and responsible for sourcing a wide range of merchandise for Kingfisher's operational companies, located all over the world.
The merchandiser's role, explains Mr Jones, is to find the best possible product in response to the buyer's needs: "The merchandiser translates the buyer's thoughts into product." Merchandisers must therefore have an understanding of the product, as well as of how that product can best be manufactured.
Mr Jones' growing interest in these factors led him to his current position. "I wanted to understand how the products were put together, where the raw materials came from ... and have some influence on how products were actually made," he says. "I enjoyed putting products together as a buyer, but was interested in how they originated: where and how they were made and why they were made that way - and how much things cost."
A genuine interest in the cost of products and in their manufacturing process is thus a prerequisite. Indeed, Mr Jones stresses that an inquisitive mind and a desire to bring about change are essential qualities for any good merchandiser.
"You don't have to be a buyer to get started as a merchandiser, but you certainly need to have an understanding of merchandise"
Other qualifications, such as a university degree in marketing or business administration, while valuable, are not mandatory. Kingfisher Asia, for example, favours candidates with academic qualifications, but those without such qualifications are not barred. A candidate with "acumen and experience" but no relevant educational background is still considered an asset.
Demanding but rewarding work
As a regional manager, Mr Jones' responsibilities are diverse. His average day may be spent determining the company's position and assessing budgetary considerations, as well as overseeing numerous projects. These currently include sourcing Christmas products for 2003 and furniture for 2004-05. He is also responsible for vendor management - ensuring that the company uses the right vendors, in tune with its needs.
Mr Jones sums up much of his work as "progress-chasing and problem-solving." Since many Kingfisher stores are located in Europe, he explains, problems often arise later in the day, resulting in gruelling hours of crisis management. "But the work is very rewarding," he adds, "particularly when you've helped a buyer develop and design a brand new product, it's on the shelves in 300 stores in Europe and you've had an input in developing it."
Kingfisher Asia also demands high quality work from its merchandisers. Unlike in some other companies, he explains, "our merchandisers have a lot of autonomy in their projects - from beginning to end. We give them a good degree of license."
From buying to merchandising
Mr Jones began his career as a UK-based buyer for B&Q, now the world's third-largest home-centre chain, importing hardware products. He then shifted to a different product category, as a hand-tool buyer, before becoming import manager at B&Q's newly-created import office. Moving to Hong Kong in 1985 as a buyer, he began to work directly with factories, importing product from the source rather than through an agent or distributor. Four years ago, in a more dramatic career move, he became the manager of Kingfisher Asia's B&Q sourcing team.
Although his career path may be unusual, since "buyers tend to remain buyers," his shift from buying to merchandising was fairly natural, concurrent with his increasing interest in product origin. "You don't have to be a buyer to get started as a merchandiser," he explains, "but you certainly need to have an understanding of merchandise."
Indeed, many buying skills resemble those required for merchandising, facilitating the shift. This, he adds, is true of other professions in the industry, such as quality control and administration. Furthermore, merchandisers need not specialise: the skills required to merchandise different products are equally transferable.
Now in his fourth year as a merchandising manager, Mr Jones is very satisfied with his current position. Constantly working to further expand the company, he is currently researching other areas of South East Asia for manufacturing opportunities. "I enjoy what I do now," he concludes. "The opportunity to work alongside buyers to develop new and exciting, innovative product is highly rewarding."
Opportunities for merchandisers to work in mainland China do exist, according to Mr Jones. The demand for merchandisers, he explains, comes from those mainland factories that are selling direct to retailers and therefore need merchandisers to help them put together ranges of products.
Agents in the mainland (who serve as the middlemen, between retailers and factories) also need merchandisers to help them interpret buyers' requirements.