NEXT TO JEWELLERY, a handbag can best define a woman's style and personality. As far back as the 18th century, fashion-conscious women had a different bag for every occasion, and fashion magazines carried suggestions on matching handbags with outfits. Merchandisers 300 years ago were faced with the challenge of sourcing quality materials and manufacturing them into trendy shapes and shades. Today, not much has changed, except there is a wider choice of materials and the number of companies that make handbags has increased. Hunters Leatherwares, which manufactures handbags under the Fion brand name, says merchandising has played an important role in building up the brand and making it a success - so much so that the company has launched a Fion Young line to appeal to the younger market, and Simbolo, which combines fashion elements and practical features in a range of bags for men. Ricky Mak, Hunters Leatherwares managing director, said the company had experimented with and perfected the art of sourcing high-quality materials and developing lasting relationships with suppliers since it was established in 1979. This had resulted in a combination of quality and styles unique to Fion. 'Merchandising has become a major factor in the competitive arena, regardless of any market in which manufacturers chose to participate,' Mr Mak said. The company places greater emphasis on its merchandisers developing interpersonal and communication skills than their academic qualifications. Merchandisers need to communicate with in-house designers, suppliers, buyers and distributors. They also need to have a sound knowledge of the industry and be able to react quickly to changing trends. For example, if a particular colour becomes popular, a Hunters merchandiser must know where to source the best quality materials at a competitive price. Most of the company's leather is sourced from Italy, so merchandisers need to travel and use the internet. Merchandising is not confined to sourcing and purchasing, but covers the whole process of creating the right products to fit the markets. 'Our merchandising strategy is first to create suitable products that meet the requirements of our target customers,' Mr Mak said. This includes providing a variety of choices over the entire product range. Merchandising also needs to take into account future interests, which involves making forecasts to predict market demand and creating new products ahead of emerging trends. Merchandisers also consult agents and clients on trends and ideas for new designs. The Fion brand name may not be as universally recognised as Prada, Gucci or Ferragamo but, for more than 25 years, Fion bags designed for fashion-conscious female executives have enjoyed a strong following in Asia. The company also manufactures small leather goods, business bags, casual travel bags and accessories. While most of Hunters' clients are in Asia, particularly in Japan, Singapore and China (the company has opened more than 100 wholesale and retail outlets in 30 major Chinese cities), it is also expanding in Europe and Canada. Merchandising was helping to promote Hunters products as added-value brands with a view to creating a platform for long-term customer preference, Mr Mak said. Marketing manager Minna Chiu said close attention to merchandising had enabled Hunters to create a meaningful relationship with its customers. Hunters' merchandisers are also involved in long-term strategies and brand development. They also work closely with designers to ensure new products fit in with the company's image and attract attention. This requires attention to detail and stringent quality control. 'We put a lot of investment into product development and updated design, and we are continually looking for ways to make improvements,' Ms Chiu said. Merchandisers play an integral part in this strategy by monitoring sales and customer feedback. What's in the handbag? Handbag merchandisers need good interpersonal and communication skills. Academic qualifications are not a must but can help in developing a career. Merchandising is not confined to sourcing and buying but involves the whole process of creating the right products to fit the right markets. Merchandisers need an up-to-date knowledge of the latest trends and fashions. Merchandisers are involved with developing product and business strategies.