Career Advice Job Market Trend Report

Retail needs 'people skills' to fill talent shortage

Published on Friday, 03 May 2013

As the familiar logo “Made in China” morphs into “Sold in China”, the mainland’s retail sector has found itself in a push-pull situation as it rushes to satisfy the appetites of aspirational customers, while hampered by a lack of experienced managers. 

Recruitment agencies say the unrelenting need for experienced management talent  is one of mainland retail enterprises’ biggest challenges. 

After  almost three decades of practically uninterrupted growth, much is being made of a slowdown in the mainland economy, but professionals  operating in the retail environment say there are few signs of any slacking off in demand for  talent. Moody’s Analytics mainland report for March records a 12.6 per cent year-on-year retail spending rise, on the back of a 12.3 per cent acceleration  in February 2013. 

“We have seen no let-up in demand for management talent in the luxury-products segment,” says Yvonne Wang, manager of Robert Walters retail and luxury division in Shanghai. She adds that luxury retailers tend to have similar talent demands. “They look for candidates who understand the culture and consumers, lead others, and create and innovate,” she says.

Wang says understanding the culture and being able to speak Putonghua are the main reasons companies are keen to hire senior management from Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore. But even in a competitive hiring climate, employers are reluctant to recruit from outside their area of specialisation. “Jewellery, sports goods or luxury-fashion employers want to hire people with experience and knowledge of that particular business,” Wang says.

Candidates for senior management jobs often have their criteria before they accept a position. “It is not just about salary, it is a matter of chemistry,” Wang says.

This includes how they feel about the work environment and the company. Will their colleagues have the same level of education and sophistication? “The right chemistry aspect plays a large part in whether recruitment is successful than is often given credit for,” Wang adds.

Wang says that with employers finding it hard to recruit in a homegrown talent pool, it is important to remember that the retail sector’s maturity level – the luxury segment, in particular – is growing from a low base.

This is even more pronounced when retail companies move into third- and fourth-tier cities on the mainland, she says. In this case, the usual talent-hunting ground for store managers and senior sales staff includes restaurants and hotels. Wang believes one way for employers to hold on to staff is to show they care about them more. “Employers need to find ways to interact with staff so they feel they are part of the company family,” says Wang, adding that this is easier said than done.

As demand for retail talent shows no signs of slacking off, Karen Fifer, global retail practice leader at Heidrick and Struggles, believes the discrepancy between talent supply and demand will grow. “There is a large pool of talent being groomed for leadership roles, but simply not enough to keep up with the rapid expansion in the sector,” she says.

Fifer notes that growing sophistication, an expanding middle class and the rising number of aspirational consumers are also having an impact on the skills required to manage and lead in the retail sector.

“It is no longer a case of having something to sell and people will buy. Consumers are becoming specific about the things they like, so retailers need managers who can deliver strong brand image and service quality,” she says.

Employers must also do more to boost their employee value proposition to attract and retain top talent, Fifer says, arguing that just as companies have marketing professionals to position and sell products, heads of HR must fulfil a comparable role. “They could position themselves as marketers for the employment brand,” she says.

Brien Keegan, general manager and director at Randstad Hong Kong, says a hallmark of top brands is knowing what motivates target workers. “Whether you’re a small retail business owner, managing director of a medium-sized enterprise or CEO of a global  group, the ability to understand what potential employees want and what motivates them to seek a particular employer is key to being successful,” he says.

As economic conditions continue to improve, Keegan advises business leaders to ensure they are looking after and investing in their staff. “Many top luxury brands are a good example of this, but those that fail to see this as a priority will lose key talent to the organisations that do,” cautions Keegan.

With Chinese consumers accounting for 25 per cent of sales of the world’s luxury consumer products, Paul Shelton, manager for luxury, retail and consumer at Randstad Hong Kong, says there is plenty of room to grow luxury niche brands, which will also boost demand for specialist retail talent.

“This will present opportunities for employers to develop company and individual offerings that make their offer the most attractive on the table,” he says.