SHOPPING IS AN activity Rody Wong finds less than appealing. He knows that a $200 polo shirt in the shop window actually cost about a tenth of that price to make in a mainland factory. He knows this because he is the chief operating officer for Marlow International, one of the world's top suppliers of promotional items ranging from T-shirts and baseball caps to travel bags, plastic toys and the mini-rugby balls that fly around at the Hong Kong Sevens. That means he knows exactly how much it costs to have such items made on the mainland. You might see a giveaway radio complete with earphones and 'jogging clip' as a generous gift; he sees an item made for under $4. 'This business is all about providing items which have a high perceived value,' said Mr Wong. 'But the occupational hazard is knowing the actual value of so many products. When you go shopping, everything seems so expensive!' With easy access to the 'world's factory' and its seemingly limitless supply of cheap labour, Hong Kong has been able to turn the sourcing of gifts into big business. Several of the year's biggest trade shows at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre are devoted to this specialised sector of merchandising. With a workforce of 100, Marlow is a global leader in the field, serving top Fortune 500 companies ranging from Gillette, Duracell and Disney to KFC, Microsoft, Fujifilm and, most recently, sponsors of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. But there are hundreds of smaller companies, some with just a handful of staff. What they all have in common is the intensely competitive business of making promotional products at the best possible price. When companies give away thousands, and sometimes millions, of such items to support their brands, there are few better places to have them made than the mainland, even though working with suppliers there is frequently a demanding and frustrating business. The greatest challenge, though, is not just to minimise costs, but to meet western standards of quality, ensure deliveries are always on time, and stay within exactingly tight budgets. 'We typically deal in huge quantities and profit margins are extremely tight. With a lot of competition out there, we have to bid for every order,' said Mr Wong. 'Promotional items are part of a corporate strategy, just like television and print advertisements, so timing is critical. For every item, there's a promotion behind it, so late delivery is a major problem.' Any delays in manufacturing, problems with paperwork, or misunderstandings about the health and safety regulations in destination countries can mean switching delivery from ship to plane, and result in the loss of any profit. The trick of creating the highest perceived value at the lowest price is another challenge. Western-style quality control standards have yet to permeate many mainland factories, but are still demanded by overseas customers, who can reject deliveries for even a minor defect. Larger corporations increasingly insist that mainland factories abide by western health, safety, environmental and staffing standards. They often appoint their own inspectors to ensure these standards are maintained. Considering that Marlow can be working with 70 or 80 factories, each producing several hundred thousand items, and a total workforce of well over 50,000, a multitude of daunting, unforeseen problems can arise. As Mr Wong said: 'A few mistakes could bring down a business.' Yet, with many more buyers looking to source such products from the mainland, it is a growth industry with increasing career opportunities. 'Vacancies are on the rise and finding good merchandisers is not easy,' he said. The best candidates have entrepreneurial flair and a detailed understanding of products, materials and the production process. People with engineering backgrounds are eminently suitable and can use their skills not only in overseeing the quality control of mainland production, but also in Marlow's design departments, which are closely involved in dreaming up ideas for promotions. Since merchandisers need to deal with both mainland factories and western customers, fluency in several languages is necessary. Besides that, day-to-day problem solving is essential. 'A key factor is the ability to anticipate problems early and be proactive in solving them,' added Mr Wong. 'This is an extremely tough business. Compared to making cars or computers it may seem a small sector, but it's just as complex as running a multinational.'