Retail companies are being invited to enter the 12th annual Service and Courtesy Awards organised by the Hong Kong Retail Management Association (HKRMA) with support from the Government's Industry Department. Companies have until July 18 to enroll and August 1 to submit details of individual employees whom they consider deserve to receive one of the 'Emmys' of the retail industry. To maintain a spirit of fairness, companies are required to nominate only the most junior of frontline staff who have direct contact with the customer. The aim of the awards is to upgrade the standard of staff performance through motivation and recognition which each year honours individuals for their outstanding service while working in the frontline retail profession. 'Service is no longer a luxury but constitutes an essential element for our industry's continuing success,' said Philip Ma, chairman of the HKRMA. 'We must work hard to raise the standards of the retail industry to maintain our competitive edge and retain our position as the shopping paradise of the world.' He said providing good service was not only good for Hong Kong's image but benefited the individual by increasing the level of job satisfaction through positive feedback from customers and employers and increased career opportunities. The success of the award programme continues to grow. It attracted a record 207 entries last year, a number which looks set to be beaten this year because of a change in the rules of entry. The 1997 awards will for the first time allow non-HKRMA members to take part in the five categories. These include department stores, supermarkets and convenience stores, food category, specialty stores and fashion chains. Mr Ma said the HKRMA represented more than 400 major retail chains covering more than 5,000 outlets that employed over 100,000 - or more than half of Hong Kong's retail workforce. 'We don't want these awards to seem to be dominated by the big boys. They serve to promote the retail sector and in return increase Hong Kong's competitiveness on an international level by raising service standards within the industry,' he said. To help smaller firms operating in the retail sector - which had limited financial and human resources to improve customer service - the HKRMA offered experience sharing workshops and training programmes. The association also joined forces with a number of education institutions and re-training boards to develop programmes which teach retail service skills. He said as Hong Kong relied increasingly on its service industries, the overall level of service standards had improved. Mr Ma said in the 12 years the awards had been in existence there had been a marked increase in the quality of the people taking part. He said Hong Kong was an expensive place to live and to meet the high expectations of both local and tourist consumers, concerted efforts had to be made to continually raise the quality of service on offer. Entrants for the awards faced a tough competition designed to test professionalism in customer service, presentation and communication skills. Judging panels consisting of experienced retail practitioners, consultants and prominent representatives from various trades will interview the contestants at different stages of the competition. The interviews, in Cantonese, will include question and answer sessions, video cases, service concepts tested through product presentation and role play. Teams of well-trained mystery shoppers will be randomly sent to visit participants at their work locations to assess their on-the-job performance. Each competitor will be presented with a certificate of participation at a dinner and the awards ceremony in November. Winners of each of the categories will be presented with a trophy plus the chance of a pleasure and study tour of Japan to see how Japanese stores operate.