Demand from fashion conscious Hong Kongers and mainland tourists ensures a consistently strong market for high-end fashion labels in the city.
Boasting more than five decades of experience in the Hong Kong retail industry, international fashion brand management company Fairton International Group Limited is well positioned to maintain an edge in this competitive sector.
Founded in Hong Kong in 1955, Fairton focuses on high-end women's fashion and premium leather goods. The group currently manages 16 brands in Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan. These include Max Mara, Marella, Marina Rinaldi, MAX&Co, Pennyblack, Sportmax, Weekend by MaxMara, iBLUES, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kookai, Lloyd, PLUS IT, 7 For All Mankind, Harmont & Blaine, Fratelli Rossetti, and LANCEL.
"Customer service is more than a smile on the face, and this is especially true for premium brands," says Angus Wai, general manager, human resources, Fairton International Group Limited.
Customers form strong perceptions of specific brands during their interaction with frontline staff as a result of brand marketing, Mr Wai says. "The cookie-cutter sales approach is no longer appropriate. The sales force has to go the extra mile to understand customers' needs and to care about their preferences," he explains.
Since customers are bombarded with masses of advertising material about a myriad of products daily, it is essential for retailers to try and attract customers with a fresh approach. Fairton therefore focuses on creating a customised shopping experience throughout the organisation and highlights this element in its sales training that is key to Fairton's ongoing success.
One technique revolves around the "seven-step approach" to starting a dialogue with shoppers. "The aim is to create a sense of closeness with our customers so that they feel special and taken care of throughout their shopping experience," Mr Wai explains. "This makes them want to return to our shops. Premium customer service gives our brands a good strong image."
Aside from regular training on products and trends, Fairton also coaches frontline staff on giving fashion advice and ways to make shopping more enjoyable for customers.
Since visitors from the mainland now make up the majority of Fairton's customer, the group has adapted its training strategy to fit in with new markets, targeting the influx of new customers.
In particular, employees have access to a Mandarin language curriculum that was tailor-made to suit job requirements and the store environment. "Aside from teaching our staff fashion and retail-related phrases, we also concentrate on honing conversational skills," Mr Wai points out, noting that topics covered in class include the latest social and demographic developments in China as well as current affairs. "This definitely helps our frontline staff to start a conversation with mainland customers and ultimately helps to build customer relationships."
Staff enrolment in most of the language enhancement programmes is voluntary. The group also runs a major annual Mandarin training workshop to boost employees' language skills. Alternatively, staff that prefer to brush up on their Mandarin competence in their own time are given access to online self-study materials on the group's intranet.
On the frontline
Like other Hong Kong retailers, Fairton faces the challenge of retaining talent in a tough industry, but Mr Wai believes that the group's well-established brand name and employee-friendly environment are some of the key factors for maintaining a stable workforce. "Our well-defined and above-the-average rewards structure also helps in this regard," he says.
In addition to annual performance-based incentive schemes, the group offers weekly and monthly bonuses to frontline staff that meet their targets. They are also entitled to year-end incentives linked to the group's overall profitability.
With the mainland retail fashion industry booming, there are ample opportunities for Fairton employees to be seconded or relocate to operations across the border. Operations staff are increasingly attracted to the mainland China exposure that the group offers.
"Employees perceive these openings, usually assignment-based, as a means to personal career development. It certainly helps to nurture loyalty," Mr Wai stresses.
Hong Kong's fashion retailing business has been growing steadily in spite of the volatile economic situation over the past year. The group expects to increase its sales force as part of its expansion strategy for this year and the next.
"Although business growth here is relatively slower than that in mainland China, Hong Kong offers strong employment prospects, especially in the high-end fashion sector," Mr Wai notes. The company looks at more than just academic qualifications when recruiting, preferring candidates that are presentable, outgoing and open-minded. "They should also have an interest in fashion and first-class communication skills," Mr Wai concludes.