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What Does the Retail Industry Have in Common with Education?

What Does the Retail Industry Have in Common with Education?

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Learn more about degree programs at American Public University.

By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

What does the retail industry have in common with education? The forces of nature have disrupted both industries, and it is interesting to watch how each responds.

Education has gone through a process of mixing the old with the new. Classroom presence is just one option for learning today, yet we still have policies and practices in place that cater to that old method. We are simultaneously in the process of building models that will support some of the new styles, such as online education, hybrid programs, competency-based models and micro-credentialing.

I have experienced the growth of these models as well as their growing pains. I have also seen their successes, failures, breakthroughs and setbacks.

Now, as I watch the retail industry, I see some of the same trends. Retail is in the middle of an industry-wide disruption. Some retailers are doing well, while others are struggling to determine what they need to do to survive.

Retail executives could benefit by examining what has happened in higher education during the past 15 to 20 years. They could learn from education’s experiences to produce a different outcome in their own businesses.

My Own ‘Project Runway’ Offers Insights into the Retail Marketplace

One of my favorite TV shows was Project Runway. Each week, I enjoyed seeing fresh new designers attempt to impress retail executives. The designers had the opportunity to introduce products that would be attractive to diverse markets.

When the show went on hiatus, I created my own “Project Runway” when I worked briefly about three years ago at three retail outlets: Macy’s, Loft and The Limited. I experienced retail from the viewpoint of the employees and the customers. At each, I was studying particular characteristics:

  • Macy’s – Support end (logistics and omni-channel)
  • Loft – Personal shopper
  • The Limited – Displays for promotional items

I wanted to find out what appealed to each group and if there was a nexus between them. Finding mutual appeal is a key factor if retail businesses are to weather the current storm and transform their industry.

Here are the lessons I learned:

  1. Some stores are very good at nailing down the demographics of their customers and the products they want.

One day, while speaking with a sales associate in the cosmetics department, I noticed the extensive inventory for a particular line of Lancome Night cream. I asked her why she had so much product. She replied that the store’s analytics showed how quickly that particular cream sells.

She shared how a specific ethnic group in a particular age range would buy the product, regardless of cost. I was amazed by the precision of the customer profile of a specific product.

How well do you know the buying patterns of your consumers and those shoppers who simply browse? How do you convert the browsers into buyers?

  1. Many retailers recognize the value of technology, analytics and supply chain management in moving merchandise.

Last year, I wrote about a group of retailers who met with members of higher education to educate the retailers on the changes in their industry.

The focus was to highlight how technology, analytics and supply chain management were integral to their operations. As a result, they wanted to attract college graduates with interest in these areas and show how retail was more than just how to become a successful store manager.

  1. Some retailers are still trying to find the balance between actual stores and their online presence.

Some retailers attempt to transition to the ecommerce marketplace the same way that some higher education institutions implement an online education presence. The retailers just take what they traditionally offered for sale and put it online.

In most cases, however, sales don’t work that way. You have to spend time and effort developing a plan that is going to work in the long term. How do you want to be portrayed online? What target audience are you seeking? How can you ensure that there will be a loyal customer base? If you have physical locations, how can you utilize the inventory to meet the needs of increased online sales (i.e., omni-channel)?

Overall, many retail companies are attempting to find out where they fit in the online marketplace. However, it seems as if each day we hear of some pillar in the retail industry filing for bankruptcy and closing its stores. Can this trend be turned around or should it be?

I consider myself to be a “connoisseur of the online experience” as a student, instructor and consumer. Some of the key factors important to me are:

  • ‘Just in time learning’ equates to ‘just in time’ shopping. To have the ability to learn and shop whenever I want in privacy is terrific. I can fit it into my schedule.
  • The exposure to what is available online is terrific. Distance education allows everyone to learn from experts who live all over. Similarly, online shopping allows you to purchase items from any place in the world. Type in what you are looking for, and a search will produce a list of merchants selling that product. You can compare prices to see which company offers the best deal.
  • Blended experience: Options and variety are possible. Appreciating the online experience does not mean it is the only way to partake in learning or shopping. It’s an option. There are times when we want an on-site experience. That could be a one-on-one relationship with an instructor or the need to examine the product before purchasing it.

As the transition continues, we may find that the retail experience of today is drastically different from what it will look like in the future. The influence of “personal preference versus needs” has shifted as millennials begin to rival baby boomers in the online marketplace.

Learn more about degree programs at American Public University.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.

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