As long as Hong Kong's general export performance remains strong, merchandisers can look forward to good career opportunities, but also plenty of hard work.
"Professionals with experience in the sector are in great demand at the moment," says Alexa Chow, managing director of Centaline Human Resources Consultants Limited. "This is the result of a growing imbalance in the market with an insufficient supply of qualified candidates."
She notes that both manufacturing and trading companies are looking for recruits on a continuous basis.
Working for the former, the role may involve dealing with overseas customers and confirming orders with factories; with the latter, it may entail finding new suppliers, understanding buyer specifications and negotiating contracts.
In the past, the basic entry requirements for aspiring merchandisers were not too stringent and many Form Five school leavers went directly into the field. Now, though, standards are getting tougher.
"Many of the bigger employers expect entry-level applicants to have a Form Five education or above plus two to three years' relevant experience, or to be university graduates," explains Ms Chow. "They are looking for people who will quickly be able to handle customer orders independently. A strong academic background definitely provides a competitive edge, but experience in the profession is also highly valued."
To slow the rate of staff attrition, some companies are therefore awarding bonuses two to four times a year
The usual starting positions are as merchandising clerks or assistant merchandisers. These days, all applicants are expected to speak fluent English and Mandarin, since they will be in regular contact with international clients and mainland factories.
Market and product knowledge is a significant advantage because many companies, especially SMEs, have only limited time and resources to devote to training.
At least five to six years of on-the-job experience is needed to be appointed to a middle-management role and, according to Ms Chow, such staff are keenly sought after at present.
"Some companies are seeing double-digit rates of staff turnover and that is presenting them with a real challenge," she adds. In certain cases, merchandisers are being offered salary increases of 20 to 30 per cent to persuade them to move to a new employer and, of course, such offers are hard to turn down.
To slow the rate of staff attrition, some companies are therefore awarding bonuses two to four times a year.
In terms of career development, professionals entering the sector should be ready to make the most of the job opportunities now available in the mainland.
"Merchandisers should expect to travel regularly to other countries in Asia and, particularly, to China," says Ms Chow. The basic requirement could be to travel two to three days a week or to be stationed in China on a longer-term basis to help with general coordination and following up orders.
Ms Chow adds that merchandisers can expect to have a heavy workload. It will usually involve maintaining close contact with overseas customers, arranging product samples and price quotations, confirming orders, liaising with suppliers, and overseeing the progress of production.
The day-to-day responsibilities may also extend to arranging quality control inspections, checking quantities, and making sure shipment takes place on time.
The key to success in such a role is to be hard working, flexible and, to some extent, adventurous, in case asked to work overseas. Ms Chow is optimistic about the outlook for the profession since trade and exports remain such a vital part of the economy in both Hong Kong and the mainland.
Nevertheless, she points out that Hong Kong-trained merchandisers must be ready to face even tougher competition from their mainland counterparts in the coming five years, especially in the garment industry, where it is never easy to retain a share of international markets.