For a cosmetics store supervisor to provide the best level of service when dealing with mainland customers, fluency in Putonghua is vital. An understanding of cultural differences is also essential and, judging by the continuous influx of mainland visitors to Hong Kong, there will be no shortage of opportunities to put both into practice in the months ahead.
Since the central government eased travel restrictions and introduced the "individual visit scheme" in July 2003, official figures show that tourists from China have accounted for 57 percent of Hong Kong's total. The numbers will be further boosted from July when the number of cities covered by the scheme is increased from 23 to 32. The surge in arrivals has helped to revive the local economy and triggered a boom in retail sales which has led, in turn, to the creation of new job opportunities.
Sa Sa International Holdings Limited, as Hong Kong's largest cosmetics retail chain has been a major beneficiary. Since July 2003, it has opened seven new shops and has plans for two more in Mongkok and Causeway Bay. It is also looking to double the size of some of its existing outlets in prime locations such as North Point and Tsim Sha Tsui.
More than 100 new staff have been hired, most of them frontline beauty consultants, and the company is training experienced staff to take up supervisory roles. "We also need supervisors to work in China as stores will be opened in Shanghai and other major mainland cities in the coming years," says Macy Leung, director of corporate communications.
As Hong Kong imposes no sales tax or duty, cosmetics here are competitively priced and popular purchases for mainland visitors who pay up to 50 percent more at home. The full array of international brands is available and trained beauty consultants offer a professional sales service.
Iris Yim, assistant supervisor of Sa Sa's Causeway Bay store, believes her own role has become more challenging with the increase in mainland visitors. "They are straightforward and their style of communication is different but they are not impolite," she notes. "You have to be patient and give them 150 percent attention. What concerns them is how to use the products and which cosmetics will help their skin."
Ms Yim finds that beauty consultants learn best how to communicate with customers through practical experience. She observes how they interact and steps in with guidance and support when necessary. It is also important to know your customers. "Mainlanders usually come in groups and are always in a hurry," she explains. "They prefer to buy famous brands and have little interest in new products."
To improve the skills of frontline staff, Sa Sa's training department has introduced several initiatives. They produced a tailor-made CD featuring basic Putonghua pronunciation and translations of brand names and products. Descriptions of popular tourist spots were included so that employees can discuss more than just cosmetics with customers. Classes have also been given in how to spot fake renminbi notes since many mainland visitors choose to pay in cash.
According to Janet Wong, director of training, 80 percent of junior beautician trainees have no relevant retail sales experience when recruited. "A 160-hour programme trains them in skin care products, sales skills and customer service," she explains. After passing a written test, junior staff are appointed to work in retail stores and put theory into practice. Performances are assessed and a certificate issued on successful completion of the training programme.
A Sa Sa store supervisor normally starts as a trainee beautician before moving up to beauty consultant and assistant supervisor over a period of several years.
University graduates wanting to be shop supervisors can take an 18-month management trainee programme. They spend time in a retail outlet and are later trained in departments such as marketing, purchasing and finance. After completing the programme, they become trainee assistant supervisors.
Outstanding performers have the chance to be appointed as shop managers, looking after up to 10 stores, or operations managers overseeing the smooth running of the retail chain. Those without tertiary-level education are generally advised to take part-time management courses to give themselves a better chance of promotion.
The usual starting salary for trainee beauticians is HK$8000 though this can quickly increase with experience and commission. Shop and operations managers can earn HK$35,000 or above.
"People with extensive supervisory experience in retail operations can join directly as shop supervisors," says Ms Wong, "but they still need to learn the company's culture." She points out that academic qualifications are not the only consideration for supervisors and that attributes like experience, communication skills, a positive work attitude and a keen interest in the industry are also important.
With fewer restrictions on mainland travellers and the Disney theme park on the way, Ms Wong believes that the prospects for tourist arrivals and knock-on retail sales in the cosmetics business have never looked better.