HONGKONGERS LOVE shopping. And by the looks of things, they like selling too. As their reward, employers of a record 547 applicants from the city's booming retail sector, or 198 more than last year, were entered in the Hong Kong Retail Management 2005 Service & Courtesy Award. Introduced in 1986, the prestigious award is now in its 20th year and has always been successful in promoting service in the industry. This year the event expanded not just in terms of the number of applicants and companies (69), but with three more categories - cosmetics, restaurants, and furniture and home accessories - added to the existing six areas of retail expertise. 'It is just another example of the growing significance of the award,' said organising committee chairman Benedict Li Pun-tak. 'Companies are also encouraging more and more staff to take part. Whereas before we were seeing maybe two or three employees from each company, we're now seeing eight to 10 entering. 'Winning an award is really seen as a matter of honour and is an extremely good way to motivate staff.' That was evidenced by the real buzz of anticipation before the official announcement ceremony at the Central Library on October 27. A packed theatre was decorated with flowers and retailers hoping to be recognised for their commitment to service proudly wore their staff uniforms. There were awards for winners in two classes: junior frontline level and supervisory level. In addition, there was also a Company Award presented to 'the best team performance', which this year turned out to be SmarTone-Vodafone. The bar was set even higher this year with the standard of the entrants better than ever before, according to Mr Li, who has been working with the HKRMA for seven years, four on the organising committee. 'It makes judging very difficult. Everyone is so well trained and prepared now,' he said. 'Levels are similar, so you have to judge candidates on reaction time and whether the answers to your questions are appropriate. 'Of course, the whole market is not as good as the overall winners but we are seeing the gap close.' Judging was based on four main criteria: professional image, personal presentation skills, interpersonal skills, and service concepts and skills. Seventy per cent of the marks were taken from an interview with the candidate and the remaining 30 per cent from an independent Mystery Shopping exercise of which the individual was unaware. 'Customer service is one of the most important elements in business. It doesn't matter which industry you work in, it's universal,' said Mr Li, a former G2000 training manager and now an employee with Jardine Aviation. 'Although, I don't work in retail any longer, it's still a very important aspect for me. 'In retail, which is a very fast-moving industry, you have to make quick decisions and implement strategies at short notice, particularly in the area of training. 'For example, I think many shops in Hong Kong aren't yet geared up to respond to the different needs of customers from the mainland. Some are prepared, some are not, but improvements need to be made quickly both in terms of language and an understanding of their buying culture and methods.' There has, however, been an attitude shift in the sector. 'There seems to be a new definition of service in retail these days,' Mr Li said. 'Service now incorporates both 'serving' and 'selling'. In the past there was a different concept, salespeople used to think they had no time to sell if they provided service. 'Today, service has become more proactive than before, meaning that salespeople can now actively cross-sell other items to customers rather than wait for the customer to choose. 'That does not mean to say that the service is pushy. It means that before offering anything at all, the staff spend the first one or two minutes with a customer discovering their actual needs.' The awards are sponsored by long-time partners American Express International, HKNet and Just Gold.