The Reinvigoration of Retail Education

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 68 views 

The retail industry affects virtually every part of life.

It is the nation’s largest industry, with total sales reaching $4.13 trillion in 2009, according to the latest annual report conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau.

And the largest company in the world is a retailer. You get just one guess for the answer.

The building blocks of the industry are littered with success stories of those without any advanced degree or prior education. Raw talent, ambition and personality were more vital.

But in an increasingly global environment in which e-commerce and social media have emerged, and sophisticated strategies are the norms, can the same still be true going forward?

Barbara Farfan, a Florida-based management and operations consultant to some of the largest retail organizations in the world, said experts are divided about whether an advanced retail education is important and whether a college degree in the field of retailing is necessary at all.

Put two of Northwest Arkansas’s retail education leaders in the “necessary” camp.

Jeff Murray is the chair of the marketing department in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. The department offers a bachelor of science degree in business administration in two areas — marketing and, for the first time this semester, retailing.

The university has always offered opportunities in retailing for all students in the Walton College regardless of major. Offering a degree, though, should give even more support to students who are preparing for a career in the fast-changing industry.

“There is a huge need right now for a different kind of student coming out of a school of retailing,” Murray said. “There is more of an emphasis on market and research, and more of an emphasis on interdisciplinary approach to retail.”

At Northwest Arkansas Community College in Rogers, the retail education is more precise. The school’s Certified Retail Analyst program, which has evolved since its inception in 1999, is specific to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. — the aforementioned largest company in the world — and its processes and procedures for analyzing data.

Renee Campbell, who arrived in July to head up the program as NWACC’s director of retail and supplier education, has two decades of supplier-slash-buyer-slash-retailer experience backing her up when she says the demand for retail education and professional development is higher than it has ever been.

“Ten years ago, if you were a supplier and just got an item into Wal-Mart, you would see a tremendous jump in sales,” she said. “The industry had not come out with many innovative products. Now, there are so many products that have flooded the market. These days you have to be more creative than ever to drive your product.”


An Interdisciplinary Degree

Adding a retail major and minor this semester at the UA is something the Walton College has been working toward gradually since 1998.

That year, the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation made a $50 million endowment to the UA College of Business Administration. Less than a month later, the board of trustees voted to rename the business school the Sam M. Walton College of Business Administration.

The donation also formed the Walton College’s Center for Retailing Excellence, with a mission to be one of the country’s leading institutions for retail education.

“Every year we have done something retailing-oriented,” said Murray, a PhD who has been on campus since 1989. “In part because of our location. We have all the vendors here. Wal-Mart is here. We tend to attract professors, when they are on the market, who are interested in teaching here.”

The decision to offer a retail degree arose because of the growth of the supply chain emphasis in the marketing department.

“The supply chain group had gotten big enough to have its own department, so they split off from us,” Murray said.

That gave Walton College seven departments.

Rather than have two concentrations that were very similar, faculty leaders agreed to have two majors in the marketing department — marketing and retailing.

The marketing major takes place solely within the marketing department. The retail major is different, drawing from nearly every department in the entire college.

Students take a set of core courses in the marketing department first, and then select a concentration that takes place in one of the other departments.

If a student chose, for example, to emphasize the accounting dimension of retailing, they would take classes in accounting and have a set of classes oriented toward that context of retailing.

“It was designed to be very interdisciplinary,” Murray said, adding there are whole disciplines that have really gone un-noticed by today’s student.

“They have a misunderstanding as to what retailing is,” he said. “Kind of the myth of retailing is that you work at The Gap as a salesperson. Market research, marketing, e-commerce, analytics, consumer insights have all become huge. There are probably more ethnographers working now in retailing than there are in academia. It has become unbelievably big.”


A School of Retail?

A retailing degree is but one piece of the puzzle, Murray said. Another is the reorganization of executive education around retail-focused class offerings.

Creating a nationally ranked department of supply chain management is another. The department was created July 1.

A bigger piece is in the works. The Walton College is in the midst of proposing the addition of a School of Retail.

Currently the campus has five colleges and two schools. A School of Retail would be housed under the Walton College.

“This is going to take years to develop,” Murray said. “But every year we’ve taken a step towards that because that is ultimately our goal. We need so many kinds of talents to contribute to this industry. That’s what we’re hoping we can create with this [retail] school.”


Highly Specialized at NWACC

Where the UA is picking its apples straight from the tree, NWACC is harvesting from the barrel.

Of the 29 students currently enrolled in the CRA program, the average age is 36 and the majority of them are working professionals.

“We want students who have the professional experience,” said Campbell. “We want to give them the analytical experience. Some of them are in their fifties and they are excited about what they get to do.”

The CRA program — the brainchild of Wayne Callahan, president of Global Wal-Mart Business for H.J. Heinz Co., and former Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott — was developed by a three-way partnership between the college, Wal-Mart and the supplier community.

It offers highly specialized training for students with a purpose of teaching them how to analyze data, making them more attractive job candidates for entry- or mid-level retail sales analyst jobs at Wal-Mart or within the supplier community.

The curriculum is centered on Retail Link, an all-encompassing database that is Wal-Mart’s proprietary software. Campbell refers to the software as a bottomless pit of information and just three groups have an ID to access it — Wal-Mart employees, the suppliers they deal with and students in the CRA program.

“It’s the only program of its kind in the nation,” Campbell said.

The program, taught by six instructors who either presently work for Wal-Mart or have in the past, includes five courses spread out over three, 16-week semesters.

The first two and second two classes can be, and usually are, taken concurrently. The capstone class is taken by itself.

The offerings are taught each night Monday through Thursday.

“What we’re teaching is Wal-Mart specific, but you can take it to other accounts,” Campbell said. “Quite honestly, once you have experience in Wal-Mart, you can pretty much go and do with it whatever.”


Definitely a Value

The cost is $2,525 ($505 per class), a value when considering that of the program graduates in the last three years, 88 percent have landed a job with a supplier within six months.

“And that cost is not all an upfront cost, so that makes it an easier investment to swallow,” said Kalen Bewley. “It’s definitely a value.”

Bewley, a 2008 UA graduate, works fulltime for a small vendor in Bentonville. He said he enrolled in the CRA program to change the course of where his career is headed.

He is six weeks away from completing the program, and agrees with Campbell’s assessment — it’s no cakewalk.

“It’s been very stressful at times, I can’t lie,” he said. “If you get too far behind in these classes, you’re going to sink. It’s set up to challenge you and to make you think and to make you dig deep.

“When I first started, I had the deer-in-the-headlights look, but you get acclimated to it.”

Campbell said she has a goal to get the program accredited with the American Council on Education, adding programs and increasing the number of students to 100.

Curriculum is being developed to begin a Category Management certification next fall.

“We are enabling people who want to move up and our focus with this program is to put people to work,” Campbell said. “Our whole thing is giving people jobs.”