College professors go back to school to learn about retail

Published Oct 3, 2016

As they settle back in on campus, undergraduate students at colleges across the country are discussing their just-completed summer jobs or internships. But this year, professors — not peers — may be the ones sharing summer experiences that could impact these students’ career paths. Why? 

Because for the second year in a row, the NRF Foundation hosted Retail’s Academic Symposium; a two-day event in New York City designed to reintroduce 200 undergraduate business school professors to the retail industry, and showcase some of retail’s most exciting companies and the executives who run them.

Our core mission at the NRF Foundation is to shape the future of the retail industry. More than any factor, this future depends on a robust pipeline of highly qualified talent to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of modern retail. But why focus on educators, instead of students? Because we know that these professors deeply influence the workforce of tomorrow. Every day, each year, they engage with the young, highly skilled talent  the retail industry will need for sustained success. And if you impact one professor you can, in turn, impact hundreds or even thousands of students.

As we’ve learned in recent years, many college students don’t fully understand how dynamic and sophisticated the modern retail industry really is. Many don’t realize the level of talent the industry now requires, or the engaging, competitive careers available. One of our key insights last year — and the reason we created this program — was to elevate retail’s profile by making it part of the in-class curriculum for students pursuing a wide variety or degrees from accounting to marketing. And the gatekeepers for those discussions are their professors.

For this year’s Symposium, we brought in top executives from a variety of leading companies  to help professors understand all the opportunities that the retail industry provides. With a more complete understanding of retail, and its positions and careers, these professors now see the industry’s true need for their best students — those with advanced education in business, finance, statistics and data analytics.  

To communicate this, executives from some of retail’s most powerful brands described key trends in the industry’s ongoing evolution. Mindy Grossman, CEO of HSNi, discussed “boundaryless retail,” and the growing demand for leaders who can manage data, analytics, and multi-channel content. Under Armour’s Kurt Kendall focused on digital health and connected fitness as examples of how those in retail can shape new communities and lifestyles.

Connecting retail to a broader purpose, Walmart’s Kathleen McLaughlin described how retail leaders can have a positive societal impact, whether by enhancing the sustainability of supply chains or strengthening local communities. And from James Rhee, CEO of Ashley Stewart, attendees heard about the compassion and core values that now pervade retail’s relationships with customers.

Based on survey data from the Symposium, our effort to change perceptions is working. Before the event, we asked these 200 professors their perspectives of the retail industry in a number of categories. After the event, their opinions of retail jumped across the board, often by double digits. We saw the most dramatic shifts in perception from statements regarding retail as an exciting industry with diverse career opportunities, as well as the industry’s need for tech and engineering students.

The best part? By opening professors’ eyes to the possibilities in retail, the overwhelming majority of faculty now plan to integrate retail cases or scenarios into their curriculum.

These results confirm our belief that if we can tell our story effectively, we can transform perceptions of retail. We still face a widespread perception gap between notions of retail’s past, and the reality of the modern retail industry. But with events like Retail’s Academic Symposium, we are changing that narrative, and reaching the talent retail needs now and in the future.