• Thu
  • Dec 25, 2014
  • Updated: 10:20am

Rich pay, rich clients, but luxury retail jobs go begging

Surge in new hotels and shopping centres to cater to rising number of mainland tourists is stretching staff recruitment in the luxury sector

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 11:10am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 2014, 4:16am

Working on the sales floor for the likes of Burberry or Celine, surrounded by the latest season's outfits and HK$60,000 must-have handbags, may appear glamorous - but in Hong Kong even the world's most famous fashion houses are struggling to recruit and retain retail staff.

Despite enticing pay cheques, with junior sales associates earning as much as HK$50,000 a month, working in retail is viewed as a young person's game, with little prestige, difficult clientele and shift work.

Meanwhile, the demand for luxury goods from mainland shoppers over the past decade has simply outstripped the local retail talent pool.

"If you add up all the new hotels and the new shopping malls in the past few years, you realise that there is a huge increase, and it's pretty obvious that you're going to have a shortage," said J.B Aloy, an employee research veteran with market research firm Ipsos.

Based on government projections of the number of tourists in the next few years, "this is just going to get worse", Aloy said.

Hays recruitment consultant Eddie Chui, who specialises in hiring managers for luxury stores, said most major luxury brands faced the same problem.

"Matching [candidates with a company] isn't the most difficult; rather it's that [the job seekers] have too many options," Chui said.

It’s pretty obvious that you’re going to have a shortage [of retail staff]

The average turnover period for retail staff in Hong Kong was 18 months to two years, he said, and most were in their 20s or early 30s.

Part of the problem, Chui said, was that retailing was not perceived as a serious career but rather a side job for students or a source of quick money.

"A lot of people want to get into this industry because they hear from family and friends it's easy to make money," JAC luxury recruitment specialist Viola Zhang said.

She said most fresh university graduates earned between HK$10,000 to HK$12,000 a month in other industries. However, someone in a junior sales position, which does not require a degree, at a luxury brand could earn HK$10,000 a month in commission alone - and double or triple that during peak season shopping periods.

"If it's Christmas time or Chinese New Year at Harbour City, with commission you can be earning HK$40,000 to HK$50,000 a month, even as a junior sales associate," Zhang said.

"If you have communication skills, a kind attitude and you're pretty, it's easy to step in."

However, it is just as easy to jump to another company that offers a slight bump in pay or to exit the retail world to find "a real career", resulting in a high attrition rate.

At the store manager level, recruitment proves even tougher, despite incomes as high as HK$70,000 a month. Luxury brands are looking for a certain "look" that projects the exclusive image of the brand and exudes a certain je ne sais quoi.

"How many people do you see on a daily basis who are trilingual and are also well-groomed?" Chui said.

"For a company like Prada, the store manager should be aged around 30 and ideally have a university degree, trilingual fluency and already have around six years of store management experience. Another key thing would be to have his own network of VIPs."

Chui said companies usually end up forgoing one of these traits.

"Luxury retail is quite challenging for staff," Aloy said. "They have to deal with a diverse client base, and this is partly unique to Hong Kong as well.

"There are lots of mainland Chinese tourists obviously, but we should never disregard Hong Kong clients plus other international tourists and the expat community as well."

As mainland customers become more discerning, the bar for customer service is also being raised, particularly when it comes to language skills.

According to a joint study by Ipsos and public relations firm Ruder Finn in November, the top expectation of mainland consumers was that luxury sales staff abroad should be able to speak to them in their own language.

But even when companies find a candidate with the right look and skill set, the high demands of the job can prove to be a turn-off.

While staff at a Dior store in Beverly Hills might help a dozen customers a day, it is quite another thing working on Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, where lines often form outside the boutiques.

A regional managing director for a European luxury house said one of the drawbacks in working in luxury retail was the shift work, even at mid-management level.

There was also the perception that the subservient nature of the position made it less prestigious than an office job, even when you were managing a multimillion-dollar business.

The unacceptable behaviour of some mainland shoppers could also be frustrating to deal with, especially considering that staff were taught that the customer is always right.

He recounted the story of one male shopper from the mainland who decided to use the changing room as a toilet.

"He'd gone to the bathroom in the changing room because he decided it was too much of an effort to walk to the bathroom. He'd gone on the wall," the manager said. "We only found out after he'd left the store.

"Though that is an extreme, it's an example of the obnoxious behaviour of which there are countless stories. They are people who come from nothing to something very quickly. They watch these gangster movies and think this is how they should act."

So how should companies tackle the talent shortage?

"Obviously, have above-market benefits, not necessarily the base salary but providing them with training for multiple stores," Chui said.

"For example, if Burberry has a really good store manager, they might give them area management training, because, in general, they want multiple unit exposure," he said. That could eventually lead to international assignments.

Chui also encourages firms to always provide clear visibility of career progression paths within the company.

But there's only so much companies can do by themselves. Chui said the answer should be an industry-wide and government-sponsored approach. "It requires a lot of planning," he said, adding that the industry as a whole needs to think ahead five to 10 years.

"They need to develop a positive image for the entire industry, not just a couple of employers trying to do that."


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This article is now closed to comments

haha mainlanders s h i t t i n g in changing rooms
is there an more uncivilized group on the face of the earth?
what disgusting animals
So this is another story about young people trying to make quick money instead of doing a job properly?
So for the entire year...you earn 10k a month...then for 2 months you earn 50k, so you earn per annum of 200k? That's barely anything compared to if you actually knuckle down, finish your studies and get a proper job.
In finance, you can probably get 30k a month as an analyst now, and if you reach associate (not difficult at all) when you're about 25-27, you should be earning about 60-70k (excluding the bonus). Plus you don't have to put up with difficult customers, although you'd have to put up with difficult office politics. Much rather reach the 70k mark mid to late 20s than at 30+
Young people who read this will just be disillusioned because they see the 50k and they think everyone can make it, sad thing is, most won't even reach a fraction of that.
I know the case about finance is skewed, and honestly, I believe that sometimes we are overpaid for what contribution we do to society, but I'm sure progress is not hard in most industries if you're willing to put in the hard yards.
Young people won't read this because it is in English.
This is just another facet of the problem that HK has too many tourists. Any trilingual worker can definitely do better than pushing 'luxury goods'. HK has too many so-called luxury shops - it's so boring to go shopping these days. Looking forward to the bubble bursting on these ridiculous rentals and these avaricious landlords are left with empty spaces.
Isn't it typical of most service-sector jobs globally to have a high turnover rate? What about waitstaff at high end restaurants? Of course it isn't going to be a long-term career path for someone from HK with a university degree. Perhaps they should recruit grads from the mainland (as most are trilingual already) and offer good benefits like visas, housing, etc.
Deal or No Deal
Come on SCMP. Get your facts right. Luxury retail in HK is not even comparable to NY or London. Shopping at these brands, I have never met a trilingual sales staff or manager. These brands spend a lot on training with the end result being substandard. The current breed of managers are pumped up sales people. Good staff have been lured to the Mainland a few years ago during the boom. Now with sales at a low, these luxury brands are suffering because of a reduction in manpower and extremely high salaries. Everyone wants to be a manager! These brands should really do a full assessment of their in store staff. Are the luxury consultants really consulting? Any layman can do a simple analysis as a customer, concluding there is insufficient luxury experience being sold.
Spend millions on fixtures and fittings however the heart and soul of a store is its staff. You will find better service in a convenience store.
More and more locals are shopping online or overseas. It's a happier shopping medium than HK.
So these salaries are not justified yet these brands are blind or afraid to confront the issue. If following customers around the store and telling them "to try" is exemplary service.......then these Regional heads and their managers are deluded beyond saving.
We are heading in the direction of China customers as the majority (which is not long term or sustainable) and dwindling locals. Wake up Italy and France!
Thumbs up to CC for service.


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