To the lay person, the differences between a retail merchandiser and a wholesale merchandiser probably appear practically non-existent. Although the similarities are admittedly great, a retail merchandiser should be armed with distinct skills and characteristics if he or she plans to carve out a successful career path - particularly in the fast-moving, chameleon-like world of fashion.
Above all, retail merchandising is distinguished by its need for rapid responses. "Work-wise, there's a lot of similarities ," says Anita Ho, product director at G2000 (Apparel) Ltd. "The key difference is that we have to react really fast to market changes and customer reactions within a short time span."
From creating samples from sketches to explaining design team requirements and working closely with factories, Ms Ho explains that the retail merchandiser is, in essence, the bridge between the suppliers and the designers.
It is a prerequisite that retail merchandisers work very closely with designers, understanding the taste and unique requirements of different markets in terms of specifications, style details and colour preferences. "As a retail merchandiser, you are at the forefront of the fashion world," she explains.
"As a retail merchandiser, you have to have the knack of working with people"
A typical career
Before joining G2000 in 2002, Ms Ho gained broad experience in merchandising both in Hong Kong and Canada and notes that her career path was "fairly typical". After graduating in 1983 in business administration & commercial studies in Canada, she joined an executive training programme with a global manufacturer which ultimately sent her to the merchandising department, where she worked for almost four years.
Her career then took her to several international buying offices where she worked for a number of years. Later, she joined a buying office and trading firm, shipping goods out of China and South East Asia to Asia and the United States.
Currently responsible for G2000's design and production divisions and supervising two brands, career wear G2000 and casual wear U2, Ms Ho explains that her team manages the "full cycle", from sourcing fabrics and yarns, designing styles, costings and sampling to bulk order follow-up.
In addition to a good educational background, a prospective retail merchandiser should have good communication skills, be very open-minded and, above all, a people person. The profession is undeniably hands-on and involves plenty of interaction. "The garment field, in particular, always gives you the opportunity to work very closely with different people from different backgrounds," Ms Ho notes.
"We'll go down to the shop and see how the merchandise is being displayed," she continues. "It's very satisfying to see how your merchandise is being received by customers at shop level."
Retail merchandisers also need to be adaptive to change, particularly in the fashion industry. "Fashion is a very fast-moving business ... you can't afford to stand still. You have to react very fast to changes and be diligent, hard-working and detail-oriented."
Despite Hong Kong's current economic downturn, merchandising job opportunities are available to those with the right personality and attitude. "If you work with a well established company, it's not that difficult to pick up experience," says Ms Ho.
Indeed, educational qualifications take second place to the knack for understanding the market and knowing how to target customers. "You have to have a passion for the product and be committed to your work," she concludes.
Ms Ho believes Hong Kong will enjoy ample business opportunities "with mainland China on its side". She notes that mainland China should become increasingly open in future and continue to deliver considerable economic growth, in particular from 2005-8, by which time she expects the mainland market to be "very fast-moving". "Hong Kong, being at the forefront of global fashion and a sourcing centre, will continue to be the hub of attention for China and global buyers," she comments.
As a result, Ms Ho envisions considerable opportunities for retail merchandisers seeking career opportunities both in Hong Kong and mainland China, contributed by the country's rise to global success.