SUPPLY CHAIN management and merchandising have grown tremendously over the past decade. Business operations spanning the globe have fuelled the demand for professionals to manage complex processes. Manufacturers and retailers have realised these disciplines are important to ensure that the right products are in stores around the world at all times. They are also critical in lowering costs, improving efficiency and influencing consumer behaviour. The merchandiser's role, in particular, has evolved significantly in recent years. It is no longer just about chasing orders and liaising with suppliers. Merchandising professionals now co-ordinate collections, shape value perceptions for a brand and oversee the entire production cycle. Benson Pau, general committee member of the Hong Kong Exporters' Association and managing director of Wings Trading (HK), said that merchandising had become a multidimensional job that required professionals with a range of skills. A comprehensive understanding of supply chain systems and the manufacturing industry in the Asia-Pacific region has become essential. Many aspects of sourcing and delivery have changed substantially. Just-in-time inventory management, latest cargo-tracking technology and tailor-made order placement systems, for example, have become the norm. Mr Pau, who has more than 26 years of experience in the industry, said merchandising traditionally generated value by finding an assortment of products at competitive prices. But merchandisers and supply chain managers these days have to deal with customers who want greater involvement in the buying process, freedom to make choices at the last minute and higher flexibility in shipping and purchasing terms. 'Those working in merchandising and supply chain must know everything there is to know about the entire business to better understand and deal with client needs. They can then make things happen swiftly and cost-effectively,' Mr Pau said. Merchandising professionals must work closely with customers on the development of new product lines. They should be able to identify the best manufacturing facilities and sources of raw materials. Merchandisers are expected to be involved in interpreting the client's ideas or designs, and translating them into products that can be sold profitably. Mr Pau said much of the impetus for innovation came from major retailers in key overseas markets. He said the processes they introduced created ripples across the merchandising and supply chain industry. The development of international operating procedures also sparked closer working partnerships between suppliers, manufacturers, logistics and transport agents, distribution centres and retailers. Mr Pau said companies had to examine ways of improving efficiency and creating supply chains that were seamless. Hong Kong enterprises were differentiating themselves from regional and mainland competitors by focusing on quality and adding value, he said. The pressure to deliver goods and services to tighter deadlines has also led to greater specialisation. For example, a general merchandiser who deals with household items, toys and lifestyle products is likely to concentrate on a single area, and work with one or two major clients. 'Depending on how these changes are viewed, they present stiff challenges or opportunities to increase market share,' Mr Pau said. He said it was essential for a merchandiser to be close to clients and understand their needs. Interpersonal and communication skills were important to build rapport. Candidates are expected to be proficient in English, Cantonese and Putonghua. They have to be prepared to travel often and work closely with people from different cultures. 'Even though the internet has changed the way we do our business, person-to-person contact is still extremely important for acquiring new clients and consolidating existing business,' Mr Pau said. According to a Hong Kong Trade Development Council (TDC) forecast, local exports will continue to do well this year. Total merchandise exports are expected to rise 9 per cent in value, while domestic exports and re-exports are expected to increase by 4.5 per cent and 9.5 per cent, respectively. Edward Leung, chief economist at TDC, said continued globalisation and strong worldwide demand would fuel Hong Kong's export growth this year. He said the liberalisation of world trade in the past 15 years had resulted in faster growth. Annual expansion of world trade between 1990 and 2005 was 6.5 per cent, three percentage points higher than the world output growth over the same period. Paul Wu, senior consultant with Kelly Services Hong Kong, said there was ample room for growth in the local logistics sector. However, by comparison, the potential for new employment opportunities in the mainland was huge, he said. 'The implementation of specialist IT systems has turned logistics and cargo movement into a more integrated and transparent process,' Mr Wu said. There is strong demand for logistics supervisors, managers and business analysts to develop and manage IT systems. For such positions, employers look for professionals who have strong technical, analytical and presentation skills. Mr Wu said although there were a large number of job opportunities, staff turnover was relatively low. Remuneration varied and was dependent on the industry, the size of a company and whether it was a multinational also played a role. In general, though, junior employees could expect salaries starting at about $200,000 a year and senior professionals could command salaries that exceeded $1 million a year. Anthony Thompson, associate director at Michael Page International, said there was demand for professionals in the fields of merchandising and supply chain at all levels across industry. 'Demand is high for fresh graduates and those with three to five years of experience. Employers are also looking to recruit senior managers, vice-presidents and directors to oversee global merchandising and supply chain operations,' Mr Thompson said. The number of jobs is likely to increase as more companies improve their international supply chain operations, and expand manufacturing and sourcing activities in the mainland. Changes in textile quotas and more liberal trading arrangements under the World Trade Organisation provisions are also likely to create new opportunities. Companies in the apparel industry and the electronics sector are hiring - and so are firms that supply components or products to high-profile brands. They are looking for people with strong procurement skills. 'A few years ago, merchandising and supply chain management would have been integrated into departments such as marketing,' Mr Thompson said. However, these professions were now stand-alone functions for companies looking to expand their markets and build brand awareness, he said. According to Mr Thompson, companies needed experienced professionals who could structure activities and review internal processes without compromising on quality. They also had to work with different customers who had off-the-shelf or tailor-made IT systems to track changes in production and shipment status, he said. Mr Thompson said Hong Kong merchandising professionals were well positioned to take advantage of the boom because many of them knew three languages - English, Cantonese and Putonghua - and had a good understanding of the international market.