Versatility the key for today's merchandisers

by Mary Luk

Professionals in sourcing and merchandising should always be thinking of ways to add value

While many industries have endured comparatively tough times in the last few years, people involved in merchandising, purchasing and sourcing have come through better than most, thanks in part to their strong links and steady business with key markets in Europe and North America. Indeed, trade with those two regions has generally managed to maintain double-digit annual growth and, as Asia's economy revives, the demand for personnel with relevant skills is picking up among Hong Kong-based employers.

The garment and textile sector is currently leading the way in terms of the number of merchandising and sourcing vacancies. Some individuals already in the field may well have received pay rises of up to 10 per cent this year, representing both the strength of the export industry and the burgeoning demand for talent. Experts with recruitment consultancies do caution, however, that higher salaries are being accompanied by expectations among employers that merchandisers should be willing to adapt to new roles and upgrade their professional qualifications.

With international quotas on most textile products being abolished at the start of 2005, many overseas companies anticipated the move by setting up mainland offices to supervise order placement and production. Therefore, Hong Kong's traditional role as a go-between and coordinator will gradually diminish and local merchandisers must focus more on sourcing new products and less on order progress. The emphasis now is on finding or developing innovative items which are competitive on price and have an international appeal.

For garments and textiles, this process can involve locating vendors, sourcing materials, and inspecting factory sites, possibly as far distant as Harbin in Heilongjiang province, in a bid to reduce total manufacturing costs. The products must, of course, still be of a style and quality sure to sell in world markets.

Since the late 1990s, as communications with vendors in China or offshore regions and the control of logistics have become more straightforward, buyers overseas have been able to take greater control of all manner of decisions. These might be about fabrics, trims, packaging materials or shipment dates, and the result is that specialist purchasers, who previously handled such follow-up jobs, have had to cope with change.

New areas

Rossana Mak, manager of HKIC Human Resources Services says that what remains of these coordinating duties may gradually be taken over by mainland-based employees whose salaries, at about RMB3,000 to 5,000 a month, are around a fifth to one seventh of those offered for similar responsibilities in Hong Kong.

Many employers therefore expect candidates to possess the versatility to understand market needs, materials and the manufacturing process, as well as to have a good academic background . Nowadays, fluency in English, Cantonese and Putonghua is also regarded as essential.

However, Ms Mak says that despite the opportunities in merchandising and sourcing, graduates are often put off by the need to work long hours. "Applicants must realise that they may have round-the-clock contact with buyers in Europe or America, who will expect fast answers," she explains. The realities of the business also make work on the mainland or frequent travel an absolute necessity. Only those who go into the industry as laboratory technicians or in a product development capacity can expect any difference in this respect.

Reluctant graduates

Alexa Chow, managing director of Centaline Human Resources Consultants Ltd, points out that the reluctance of graduates to go into the industry has forced some employers to hire Form Five and Form Seven school leavers with appropriate industry certificates or diplomas, even though they may have difficulty dealing with overseas customers.

Starting salaries for such candidates are in the range of HK$8,000, while a degree holder might start on HK$9,000 to 10,000. Senior merchandisers and managers with a few years' experience can expect from HK$25,000 to 28,000 and year-end bonuses which will depend on individual and company performance.

While admitting that mainland professionals will create increasing competition, Ms Chow believes that Hong Kong's merchandisers and buyers still have an advantage. "The local mentality towards business is different from what is found in China and it helps people deal more efficiently with foreign buyers," she stresses. "Executives here have a better understanding of trends and know how to respond to different customer needs."

Although the Vocational Training Council and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University offer training courses for people going into the garment and textile sector, both Ms Mak and Ms Chow think the current supply of talent is insufficient.

Ms Chow advises candidates attending interviews to be ready to work long, irregular hours and to be willing to spend time in China. "They must also prove they are smart, responsible and have an eye for detail so as to spot problems with quality," she says. "Technical knowledge, problem-solving ability and being good with numbers also give someone an advantage.''

Ms Mak adds that candidates must demonstrate they have a global vision and are sensitive to western culture. "The commitment to work under pressure and meet production deadlines are equally important," she says.

Taken from Career Times 29 April 2005
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