In Hong Kong's sophisticated retail fashion scene, most consumers have clear ideas about which brand names they favour and trust. In the past, they may have tended to follow the crowd and recognised only the latest high-profile trends, but now they have the confidence to take a more individual approach to fashion. "They are interested in items that represent their character," confirms Susan Lam, human resources manager at Sidefame Ltd.
With 13 fashion labels, including Anteprima, Plastiq and Heroic Rendezvous, which offer completely distinctive styles, the company is well positioned to take advantage of this shift in perceptions and buying patterns. "The key to our success is to offer products with no substitute in the market and, with this philosophy, we expect strong sales in 2006," Ms Lam says.
The company's Plastiq label, which focuses on hand-knitted wire bags, is a perfect example of how to cater to a niche market. Sales are growing at a "phenomenal" rate and no other brand in Hong Kong currently offers similar products. According to Ms Lam, this success has been built on popularity in the Japanese market and there is excellent potential for higher sales in both Hong Kong and the mainland. In general, Sidefame sees tourists from China as a target market and, with their increasingly sophisticated shopping tastes, as a good way of introducing new styles across the border.
Changes in fashion trends and consumer expectations have also led to new requirements for professionals in the retail sector. "Our frontline employees and support staff must have a passion for fashion and a grasp of current trends," notes Ms Lam. "They should be interested in a long-term career in the industry. Many recent high school graduates apply to us just because they think it is easy to find work in retail, but we are looking for a different type of person."
Frontline staff don't necessarily need years of experience, but must be committed to the job and be determined to excel. In 2002, the company introduced a management trainee programme for graduates in order to create a pipeline of managerial talent and develop future leaders. The programme includes a two-year stint in stores to learn about retail operations and customer service.
Sidefame believes that the policy of hiring staff with a genuine interest in the fashion business has paid off. For example, marketing executive Brian Choi says: "In my two years with the company, I have noticed that sales staff have become more aggressive and dedicated. In the past, the company would organise Mandarin courses, but attendance was very poor. Now, salespeople are keen to attend and even take extra courses on their own initiative."
Yoki Hui, human resources assistant, agrees that frontline staff are now more passionate about the company and, consequently, much keener to serve customers well and generate additional sales. "They have also become more proactive, making suggestions about what will sell well and proposing in-store promotions," she says.
It is seen as equally important for back-office staff to have a real passion for the industry. Sidefame fully expects those in support roles will, in due course, move into middle management and senior executive positions. With 55 stores in Hong Kong, frontline staff have similar opportunities for internal promotion and, in fact, many employees have followed a well-travelled path from junior sales associate to supervisor and, later, shop operations manager.
The company firmly believes that the key to corporate and personal progress is to invest in education. Therefore, they support study leave and provide sponsorship for approved programmes. As Ms Hui explains, "We allow employees several days a year to study for exams and, assuming a course is relevant to the company's business, we may also sponsor their tuition fees."
Current management trainee, Kevin Ho, points out that there are also many other opportunities not available with other employers. Job rotations are organised between departments so that staff can gain additional experience and test their strengths and interests. They also have the chance to take part in training camps, charity events and other activities which allow them to develop management and leadership skills.
With this philosophy towards helping each individual, Sidefame has been able to win the loyalty of employees and improve the rate of retention. "We believe that a happy working environment and the chance for people to grow lead to better retention," explains Ms Lam. "Other companies may use monetary rewards to hold on to staff, but we feel that people who only stay for money will leave for the same reason. The trend in the industry is to offer greater opportunities, and individuals will be attracted to companies that see environment, culture, opportunity and education as the most important elements," she concludes.
- Hong Kong consumers are moving towards a preference for
distinctive or unique styles
- Mainlanders continue look to Hong Kong for fashion ideas
and trends to follow
- Frontline sales staff should have a passion for the industry
and be thinking of building long-term careers
- Company encourages learning with study leave and sponsorship
of relevant courses
- Job rotations between departments allow employees to test
their strengths and interests
- Companies that regard environment, culture, opportunity
and education as important will attract the staff with most
ability and potential