Last year was difficult for the retail industry. While the SARS epidemic had an immediate negative impact on sales, the prevailing economic gloom kept many consumers out of stores. However, current trends suggest that the sector is entering a phase of buoyancy. In China, new stores are opening at a rapid rate and, in Hong Kong, retailers are seeing an increase in sales revenue and a rise in retail rents.
An increased turnover of experienced staff also suggests a retail revival. As Philip Fung, director of human resources and knowledge management at Bossini Enterprises, notes, "Some apparel retailers' buyers are currently being targeted by headhunters - a sure sign that things are on the up."
Merchandisers and buyers play a fundamental role in the success of a garment retail business. The two roles are often confused, however, even though their skill-sets are quite different. In the retail sector, merchandisers analyse the market, understand customer needs and work with designers to select a season's key looks and items. This vision must then be translated into a profitable strategy by defining price and margin and creating in-store concepts to promote sales.
"At Bossini, the people who make these commercial decisions are known as buyers," notes Mr Fung. "They have more of a business focus than merchandisers. In fact, their decisions determine the profitability of the business."
In contrast, the merchandising team adopts a technical and logistical focus. They source factories to produce designs, liaise on manufacturing specifications, coordinate delivery schedules and ensure high-quality standards.
In the past, buyers began their careers in retail outlets, working up through the ranks before being promoted into a buying role. They relied on experience and their understanding of the brand, products and markets to guide their decisions.
Today, it is important for buyers to attain relevant qualifications. "Retailing has become much more sophisticated, using scientific merchandising techniques rather than fashion sense and intuitive expertise alone," says Mr Fung. "Buyers now need a much higher level of skill and professionalism. We therefore prefer to recruit professional buyers who have completed formal qualifications in the fashion field, such as a degree in Fashion and Textiles from the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University."
At higher levels, senior buying managers and buying directors influence the strategic direction of the business, such as brand development and pricing strategy. Many experienced buyers are therefore opting to complete higher-level business qualifications. "Some of Bossini's senior buying staff are currently taking an MBA programme," says Mr Fung.
Fashion students who are currently in their final year of study can expect good prospects over the next few years. In particular, they may find an increase in the number of management training programmes available for graduates.
This year, Bossini Enterprises chose not to offer a graduate training programme. However, with a small population of experienced buyers in the market and increased demand for talent, Mr Fung says that Bossini is considering the possibility of re-establishing a management training programme in the near future.
"We are likely to see more turnover at senior levels. However, replacing senior staff with experienced buyers from other companies is a challenge. It takes a long time for them to adjust to a new brand and adapt to rapidly-evolving management systems," he explains. "In many ways, it is better to spend three years training new graduates."
Although graduates entering the retail buying field are expected to exhibit an intuitive understanding of fashion trends, they must also balance this creative ability with both logic and sharp analytical skills. "Whilst fashion sense is still important, buying is moving from an intuitive base to what we call 'scientific retailing'," notes Mr Fung. "Buyers need to make sure that management systems are set up to ensure fast responsiveness to the market." A love of numbers is a plus, since buyers need to forecast sales, margins and profitability.
In addition, a positive mind-set is essential for success. Buyers experience a high level of responsibility in their work and their decisions directly impact the success and profitability of the business. "Buyers cannot always be right, so they need to be able to bounce back when they make mistakes," adds Mr Fung.
A technical understanding of the garment manufacturing process can help buyers make practical decisions. Mr Fung looks favourably upon candidates who have gained experience as merchandisers in a trading firm. "Buyers who understand the technical aspects of garment production do well. For example, they know how to select designs that are quick and cost-effective to produce."
Finally, buyers need to demonstrate strong influencing skills in order to ensure that their vision and strategy is implemented by merchandisers, designers and store managers.