Friday, 26 April 2013

In HK, at your service isn't just lip service

S'pore firms on trip to pick up pointers from retail industry
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 25 Apr 2013

SELLING clothes to shoppers?

No art to it, you may think.

Not true. Sales staff in Hong Kong are quick on their feet, and can differentiate between not just local and mainland customers but also those from southern and northern China.

Customer services - such as in suggesting clothing items - are tailored accordingly and a sale is snappily made.

Musing on such "adaptive services", Mr Kevin Khoo, retail director of FNA Group which runs the Cocoa Trees outlets in Singapore, says that such a principle should be adopted in its stores.

"For instance, we have outlets in the airport and in the city. Customers' behaviour differs - at the airport, they want quick service and information on government discounts; those in town want to be engaged more on their preferences. We should train our staff accordingly."

This was one of various takeaways for a 30-strong delegation of Singapore companies, here for a three-day trip organised by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The aim is to absorb lessons from Hong Kong's retail industry, known for its dynamism and high level of productivity.

It has been a push some time in the making, as Singapore tightens its tap on foreign workers.

Back in 2010, the Economic Strategies Committee report pointed out that Singapore's productivity in the retail sector is 75 per cent that of Hong Kong's.

A new study by economics lecturer Boon Lee at Queensland University of Technology, comparing labour productivity in both cities' retail sectors, found that from 2001 to 2008, Hong Kong's grew by 0.4 per cent while Singapore's actually fell - by 0.01 per cent.

On why this might be so, Dr Lee pointed to the increased numbers of low-skilled foreign workers in Singapore. Hong Kong, on the other hand, enjoyed higher levels of productivity growth from its skilled workforce, he added.

Hong Kong does not allow the hiring of non-local workers at technician or below levels, unless companies can demonstrate that they are unable to find residents at market-rate salaries.

But the problem is, Singaporeans do not want to work in the service industry, say the companies interviewed.

Laments Mr Robin Leong, director of SingInk, which hires 20 people - more than half of whom are foreigners - to sell ink cartridge refills: "We have to depend on foreign workers. We can't get locals."

A culture change is thus needed to revise Singaporeans' impression of retail service as a "dead-end job", say the bosses, observing that in Hong Kong, many sales staff appear to take pride in what they do.

At Chow Tai Fook, Hong Kong's largest jewellery chain with 80 outlets, Mr Andy Chan, 40, a salesman with secondary school education, says he is "confident" in his skills.

He is duly rewarded: He takes home HK$20,000 (S$3,200) a month - above the city's median wage of HK$12,000 - after five years in the company and 20 years in the trade. At the end of the year, he gets a bonus that is linked to his sales.

Another notable characteristic is that many frontline staff are young - and some are even armed with associate degrees.

While one reason is a relative paucity of career choices, given the Hong Kong economy's reliance on services, another is that companies seem to pay more attention to crafting career paths for frontline staff.

Says Mr Peter Suen, executive director of Chow Tai Fook: "For those born in the 1980s and 1990s, they have very different demands. They don't want just money but they want to know what is their future. So we planned a career path for them, to show how they can progress upwards."

Ms Lena Ng, executive vice-president of Korvac, which provides services for cashless pay-ments, says one takeaway for her is to look at expanding the scope for service staff to be seconded to regional positions in places such as Thailand and Malaysia where the company has a presence.

"We should revamp our career paths to make it more attractive."


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