THE sales staff at FJ Benjamin (FJB) retail outlets here clocked more than 10,000 hours of training in the last two years, in the company's bid for service excellence.

And by the fashion and lifestyle retailer's own reckoning, its investment in those hours is paying off. Its 350 retail staff achieved a 100 per cent pass-rate on FJB's internal assessment.

Service excellence is one of three areas flagged in the government's productivity blueprint for the retail sector - the other two are process excellence and people.

And it is service excellence that Singapore's retailers are most in need of, says FJB group chief operating officer Douglas Benjamin.

"In most cases, the only point of contact a customer will have with our company is by visiting one of our stores. It is imperative that we provide exceptional service to all customers to help reflect the core values of our company," says Mr Benjamin.

Rigorous training of staff aside, the brand representative of the likes of Céline, Gap, Guess and La Senza here has also tapped on technology to improve the way it presents its offerings to customers and trade buyers alike.

With some support from Spring Singapore's Technology Innovation Programme, FJB has developed an iPad-based e-Catalogue application which provides real-time access to inventory information and electronic order processing.

"It is not only a faster and more dynamic way of showing our products, it also provides an interaction through online connectivity that was not really possible with past forms of catalogues," says Mr Benjamin.

"It is our duty as a company operating in such a fast-paced industry to stay up-to-date with the latest technological trends," he adds.

Some external affirmation of these efforts to provide better service has come in the form of various awards over the last two years, including a "Best of Singapore Service Star" from the Singapore Tourism Board last year.

But more noteworthy perhaps, is the fact that the company continues to prioritise service at its 28 retail outlets here, at a time when Singapore's retail sector is straining against a tight labour market made tighter by more stringent restrictions on the hiring of foreigners.

This is not to say that FJB, which has a total headcount of 686 in Singapore and 1,630 globally, has been unaffected. "The recent changes to manpower policy have hit the industry hard, even as the local talent pool continues to dwindle," says Mr Benjamin.

But the company is dealing with that by plotting new recruitment strategies to sustain its workforce, he adds. This is not just in terms of hiring staff to serve at the frontline retail outlets, but also in terms of attracting designers and creative talent.

The company is the internship sponsor behind the annual Audi Star Creation fashion design competition, which aims to surface young Asian design talent. The top three candidates are given a year-long internship at FJB, to gain insight into the world of fashion retailing.

This works well for FJB too. "At the end of their internship, we assess their progress as a designer and their commitment to the brand. If we see potential for them with our company, we will offer them a full-time position with us," says Mr Benjamin.

These elements - service training, use of technology and attracting talent - are crucial in any discussion of productivity on the ground. But the evolution of the business on a macro level matters too.

For FJB, a key decision in its evolution was made 10 years ago, when it decided to launch its own in-house label, Raoul.

"Starting off as a brand representative has given us great insight and taught us valuable lessons in becoming a brand owner. After years of experience, we decided to participate in the production side of retail," says Mr Benjamin.

Today, FJB's retail network includes 191 retail outlets across Asia. However, distribution rights of brands ultimately lie in the hands of principals and can easily slip out of reach. Growth for each brand is limited to the geographical area the brand representative has rights to.

With the creation of Raoul, FJB not only managed to raise its value added, but as a brand owner, is no longer restricted by geography. Today, Raoul have several stand-alone outlets across South-east Asia, including three in Singapore, it has also scored "shop-in-shops" in major department stores such as Bloomingdales in New York and Printemps in Paris.

And very intentional efforts are underway to establish the brand in Europe and the US. "We have other points-of-sale with many respected retailers and e-tailers around the world such as Saks Fifth Avenue and mywardrobe.com," Mr Benjamin adds.

He thinks the largest challenge the firm faces in raising productivity is mindset. "Encouraging people to think differently and approaching challenges in a different way requires commitment and persistence. It's important not only for business leaders to be open to new things, but the entire team as well."

One challenge the sector faces other than the oft-bemoaned manpower crunch, is the lack of retail-specific productivity performance indicators to aid benchmarking against peers, says Mr Benjamin. "A company can invest plenty of time and money into optimising manpower-related resources and be left with limited resources to measure their return on investment," he adds.