Industry March 2016

Chinese tourism drives bilingual needs

Recruiters aim to fill new sales roles

  • Demand for sales associates fluent in Japanese and Mandarin
  • Qualified candidates can be selective about employer
  • Greater optimism and movement in retail hiring market

One of Japan’s top buzzwords in 2015 was bakugai. The term, which means explosive buying, was coined to describe record-level shopping sprees of inbound Chinese tourists.

The amount of this frenzied spending is staggering when compared with outlays of tourists from other countries. On each trip, Chinese visitors spend, on average, more than ¥285,000 per person, according to the Consumption Trend Survey conducted during the second quarter of 2015 by the Japan Tourism Agency. In contrast, the average spent, per person, by other foreign visitors is ¥177,428.

Driving the feverish consumption across the retail spectrum—from cheaper, everyday goods to high-end luxury items—is a lack of access to many of the products at home. Furthermore, due to the Chinese tax system and favourable exchange rates, many goods are often far cheaper in Japan than are the equivalent or similar products in China.

Adding to the appeal of Japan as a tourist destination are close geographic proximity, a safe and clean environment, a lower customs tax rate, eased visa restrictions and excellent customer service.

Eagerness—on the part of retailers—to provide tourists with an exceptional shopping experience is driving the hottest trend in retail recruitment at present. For the past two years, we have observed unprecedented numbers of requests from all over the country for bilingual sales associates who are fluent in Japanese and Mandarin, and have local retail experience.

Demand for these candidates has risen—and continues to rise—across the board, from high-end international retailers to smaller local businesses.

The issue for retailers is finding these candidates, of whom there is a very small talent pool. Frequently, candidates we find who speak Asian languages, in addition to Japanese, have come to Japan as part of a study abroad arrangement. They are often seeking opportunities in Japanese firms, which may then act as a bridge between operations in Japan and their home countries.

These expat candidates are unlikely to seek retail work, which is more often sought by local workers who are passionate about the industry. This means there is a very limited pool of candidates from which to draw and, from a recruitment perspective, securing them has become very difficult.

Those who possess the skills required, therefore, can be much more selective about the employer they choose. As a result, we are observing a lot more opportunity for movement in the market, opening a window for workers to secure modest increases in salary: the standard is 10%.

While luxury international retailers and high-end brands may offer candidates additional benefits, such as clothing allowances and employee discounts on products, their operations are often on a much smaller scale than businesses with headquarters in Japan. In addition to having larger operations, Japanese firms are more likely to attract candidates seeking a long-term relationship.

Multinational businesses headquartered in Japan, meanwhile, are likely to hire international or bilingual students, and offer them training and development programmes that will help them launch a career.

The shopping sprees of Chinese tourists may be the most publicised, but the demand for retail talent is not exclusively for speakers of Mandarin. As Japan prepares for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, increasing promotion of the country has created a global influx of tourists.

The combined effect is a more optimistic hiring market across what has generally been seen as a struggling sector, forced to cut costs to razor thin margins, and besieged by increasingly tough competition from the e-commerce industry.

Rising to these challenges, retailers are looking for professionals, such as merchandisers and store operations managers, who can improve efficiency and increase the revenue of local businesses.

As many brick-and-mortar retail businesses now have online shops, they are competing, in terms of sales revenue and talent, with e-commerce firms that are solely online.

Merchandisers, operations managers and store managers will be able to command above-average salary and bonus levels due to their role as key players in driving sales revenue.

We expect the retail landscape to continue to be very interesting and endure a lot of movement.