Relatively new profession starts to play a big role in HK retail business
The eye-catching window displays seen at fashion stores are often more than mere showcases for a company's latest products.
Some of the displays are of such high quality, and show such high levels of creativity, that they can qualify as works of installation art in their own right.
This high quality window display comes thanks to talented visual merchandisers who are playing an increasingly significant role in Hong Kong's retail business.
Mounting retail competition has raised the demand for window decorations and store displays that boost brand image and draw in potential customers.
'The importance of visual merchandising is greater than ever,' said Gigi Wong Fung-chi, visual merchandising manager at Giordano Group.
'In the past, we called this type of work window display. But visual merchandising is more than that. It's a kind of service that we provide to attract customers to our shops, guide them to navigate the shop and give them an enjoyable shopping experience. We have to build an interactive relationship with our customers.'
Creativity and an artistic sense are prime requirements for any visual merchandiser, but an artistic mind alone is not enough.
'Creating artistic beauty for the products can help boost a brand's image, but you also need a commercial mind, because visual merchandisers are required to help in budgeting,' said Daniel Wan Kin-chung, president of the Asia Society of Visual Merchandisers.
'Visual merchandising is not just about art and design. At the end of the day, it's still part of the marketing campaign for a brand.
'It is important to sell the products. The display has to fit in a brand's image.'
The visual merchandiser is responsible for creating and changing window displays - work that involves art and design of the window, preparation and production of props, graphic design and the printing of banners.
Visual merchandisers should also have good communication and negotiation skills; part of their task was to negotiate with contractors because aspects of production work may be outsourced to independent production houses, Mr Wan said. The scope of a visual merchandiser's responsibilities extends well beyond the window display itself.
Ms Wong said: 'Our role is to improve a brand's image and increase the brand's value. When we arrange products and create different zones in a store, we are in fact mapping out a shopping journey for the customer. It's not just about getting them to buy a product; we are responsible for giving them a pleasant journey.
'Many of our regular customers just drop by for a chat with our staff and to look around.'
Visual merchandising is a relatively young profession in Hong Kong; increasing demand from the industry has prompted local educational institutions to offer professional training for those who want to enter the field.
The Asia Society of Visual Merchandisers offers diploma and certificate courses for those interested in visual merchandising as a career or visual merchandisers who want to reinforce their skills.
Courses cover a wide range of topics, such as basic retail design drafting, mannequin presentation, visual merchandising marketing, illustration, store planning and exhibition design, shop and business management, brand management, and advanced knowledge in visual merchandising.
Visual merchandising is also part of the curriculum at various institutions offering fashion design courses.
Baptist University offers a professional certificate in visual merchandising, while the Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education offers visual merchandising as an elective under its course in Design, Printing, Textiles and Clothing.
Mr Wan said: 'The demand for professionally trained visual merchandisers in Hong Kong will only keep increasing.' He said there was also demand from the mainland.
'Many brands are developing their markets on the mainland. The mainland will pick up visual merchandising very fast, but for now they rely on Hong Kong for talent.
'We don't know who's going to be the leader in the field, but it's important that we maintain a high standard,' he said.
'Many get into the field by working as sales staff at shops or merchandisers. Some visual merchandisers were previously fashion or graphic designers.'
Ms Wong stressed the importance of having a passion for the job.
'It's a good start if you are interested in fashion styling, or even furniture, but you must have the passion. You can give the customer more only if you have such passion,' she said.
'You must also have good communication skills, as you have to co-ordinate with different departments and contractors to get your job done.'
According to Mr Wan, those new to the field or with limited experience might start with a monthly salary of between HK$8,000 and HK$9,000.
Some of the bigger brands might offer more. Junior visual merchandisers can work their way up to senior positions such as manager, and even director. 'Product designers are responsible for the image of a brand, but it is the visual merchandiser who delivers the message directly to the customer,' Mr Wan said.
Junior visual merchandiser
Senior visual merchandiser
Visual merchandising manager
Visual plan an actual photograph, a hand-drawn illustration or graphic presentation of a display
Mannequin a life-size model of the human body used to display clothing
Visual merchandising guidelines a publication generated by a brand or company detailing how the display areas should be set up; the guidelines cover everything from types of fixture to be used in different zones to the use of logos and the positioning of products and shelves