To the layperson, merchandising may seem like non-stop shopping. In fact, it is a serious and complicated business that keeps evolving to meet the ever-changing demands of the consumer. As Christopher Ng, merchandiser at New Challenge Ltd explains, "The nature of merchandising has undergone a significant transformation over the past few years. Merchandisers do not have a distinct job description or strict pattern to follow. We have our fingers in lots of pies!"
Mr Ng's line of work is in the design and manufacturing of ODM (original design manufacturing) toys. This includes, but is not restricted to, product design and development, sourcing and negotiating with vendors. He also works out budgets and handles order follow-up, quality control, crisis management and, in certain circumstances, customer service.
Since so many different activities are covered, merchandisers must be smart and hard-working. "You need reliable instincts for what customers want," notes Mr Ng. Good business sense, the ability to organise and plan, self-confidence and assertiveness are also important. "The further you go, the more often you will have to make high-level decisions that must be spot on. You need the right temperament to cope with the pressure of fast-paced work," he adds.
A strong academic background is not a pre-requisite for breaking into the field. As Mr Ng points out, "This is the kind of job that requires genuine passion and devotion. A Form 5 graduate can become very successful if he or she enjoys the work." Those educated to tertiary level may have an advantage in terms of their leadership and communication skills but it is widely recognised that success in merchandising takes mainly hands-on experience and good performance.
In this highly competitive environment, obtaining professional qualifications is one way to get ahead. There are several retailing and merchandising courses on offer locally but, for those looking for self-improvement, Mr Ng suggests taking more practical business communication or language courses. "Throughout our business, acumen and experience are far superior to textbook knowledge. You learn most from what you do at work not from what you read."
Age or background place no restrictions on who can become a merchandiser but Mr Ng emphasises it is not an option for anyone looking for an easy life. "You need to be prepared for an irregular pattern of work and a hectic business environment," he says. "You will have stress and responsibility. Since you are not always sitting at a desk, you must also be comfortable with working on your feet most of the time."
Having always had an interest in toys, Mr Ng's career has been a dream come true. "I have had a passion for toys ever since I was a child, so when I started to look for jobs I paid particular attention to toy-related industries," he recalls.
He began eight years ago as a clerk handling sample deliveries for a trading company before moving up the career ladder. "My early job experiences proved to be invaluable because they helped build a solid foundation. I am now familiar with every aspect of the job and know how to communicate with my colleagues to help them do their jobs well, all because I have been there myself."
Unlike in other businesses, there may be no comprehensive training programme for junior merchandisers but, as Mr Ng underlines, assistance is always close at hand. "The most important thing is to allow yourself to observe and absorb," he advises. "Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Those with an inquisitive mind will advance more quickly because the more you ask, the more you will learn."
Promotion opportunities vary between companies depending on their size and structure. For Mr Ng, however, certain principles are clear and lead him to give practical advice. "Success depends hugely on performance and whether you are willing to put your head down. If you are prepared to do that, you will have a promising career ahead of you. It will soon be obvious if the business is the right one for you. If you see it is not, get out as soon as possible."
Nowadays, many people working in toy merchandising are likely to look to China for opportunities to develop their careers. Mr Ng believes, though, that Hong Kong will remain the hub for merchandising because of its attitude towards business, and says that those in the field should look no further.
"Merchandisers in Hong Kong already enjoy a worldwide reputation for being resourceful and trustworthy and form a strong bridge between buyers and suppliers," he explains. "People here are famous for being aggressive, hard-working and enthusiastic. These characteristics have been the basis of our business success, and that is very much the way it will stay!"