A Billionaire Starts a Retail Management School at McGill University

(Bloomberg) -- Aldo Bensadoun knows a thing or two about retail. After starting out in 1972 selling wooden clogs, he built Aldo Group Inc. into a globe-girdling shoe chain with more than 3,000 locations. Having handed the reins to his son David, the billionaire Aldo founder is keen to help educate the next generation and has helped fund a retail management school at Montreal’s McGill University, his alma mater. The curriculum will incorporate many fields of expertise needed to thrive in today’s industry, from data analytics and anthropology to artificial intelligence.

Bensadoun says few business schools around the world provide a focus on retail management, which means graduates often aren’t ready to work for a company like Aldo. “They come to us and they studied marketing, and they think that’s retail,” he says. “Retail is not only marketing.” To be a good retailer, he continues, “you need to understand sociology, you need to understand architecture, to be able to create the right atmosphere for that consumer to come and feel the experience of the brand. That’s why it’s extremely important to bring all these various disciplines into one school.”

The push for a more thoughtful approach to retail education isn’t limited to McGill. A number of schools, including the University of South Carolina and Toronto’s York University, are modernizing their curricula to better prepare students for an industry struggling to navigate the stampede online. Companies from Walmart Inc. to Circle K parent Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. are deeply invested in the effort, knowing that the prospect of joining a business in turmoil can seem like career suicide. Indeed, for many young people, retail is where you get your first low-paying job before moving onto more meaningful work. Attracting the best and brightest will require universities to offer a blend of traditional and cutting-edge instruction.

McGill’s Bensadoun School of Retail Management is in its early days. So far the university has created a concentration for undergraduates and will next add Ph.D and master’s programs, along with executive education. Marie Josee Lamothe, a former managing director at Google Inc. Canada and a L’Oreal SA alumna, designed the first two of three courses for the concentration. She aims to prepare students to deal with the reams of data retailers collect every day.  “In business, as in many other disciplines, how we make sense of the data is what makes us relevant or not, competitive or not,’’ she says. “Innovative thinking, creative problem solving, diversity of thinking and the confidence to move forward, especially in ambiguity, are what set us apart.'”

A Billionaire Starts a Retail Management School at McGill University

For every concept studied in class, Lamothe invites an executive two days later to share his or her real-life experience.  After looking into Amazon.com Inc.’s strategies, for instance, students got to hear from Walmart Canada’s top logistics executive. At the end of the semester, students are given a business challenge—such as making Burger King cool again. Proposals ranged from food trucks to an upscale “BK Grill” to a Whopper museum. Each group made a presentation, answered questions from students and sent a two-minute video to Burger King for feedback.

Student Dominic Nadeau and his group went for self-deprecating humor, which they say appeals to the chain’s 18- to 24-year-old demographic. They recommended a short-term social-media campaign asking customers to joke about their meals with a #roastBK hashtag. In the spirit of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which asks celebrities to read mean tweets about themselves, the top executive at Burger King’s parent would read the best tweets in a video and use the feedback to improve the menu.

The school, also funded by such retailers as Walmart, is building a 23,000-square-foot lab where students will be able to work with companies on e-commerce and brick-and-mortar projects. If a retailer wants to determine the most effective way of selling healthy snacks to Gen Z shoppers, say, students will be able turn the space into a store to experiment with product placement and track the impact of social-media ads.

“Today’s retailers are facing massive disruption as well as complicated social issues,” says Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, the dean of McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management. “In this environment, the traditional siloed way of thinking will no longer work. Bensadoun students will receive an education that is both interdisciplinary and collaborative and they will learn the value of developing applied and basic research to tackle complicated business challenges.”

A thousand miles south, the University of South Carolina has launched a complete revamp of its retailing program. The school, which has offered a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in retailing since the mid-1980s, signed corporate partnerships with software makers such as JDA Software Group Inc., and is putting a major emphasis on technology.

Students will train on JDA platforms used by the likes of Nike Inc. and Starbucks Corp. to manage inventory planning and logistics. They’ll also get to build and operate e-commerce stores, and earn software certification, through an agreement with Israeli company Wix.com Ltd.

“Theory is being replaced with skills that lead to meaningful employment,” says Mark Rosenbaum, the department chair. “It’s a reflection of retail’s trajectory towards a tech-dominated future. Technology moves quickly, so sometimes we can’t wait for knowledge to be printed in a traditional textbook.”

At York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto, professor Markus Giesler says the curriculum is influenced by companies’ feedback as well as the latest findings in academic research. He’s been emphasizing the growing role of sociology to answer retail’s most pressing question: What drives consumer behavior.

“This program teaches students to not just look at the marketplace through a traditional marketing lens—price, product, promotion and place—but to embrace a more experiential, sociological perspective,” he says. “Why do people shop and why are they willing to spend more in certain environments versus another.”

At Schulich, which added a global retail management specialization to its MBA programs in 2014, Giesler teaches a course called customer experience design, cited by 40 percent of MBA applicants as the main reason they chose to attend the school. He picked his focus a few years ago, after traveling for a summer and asking almost 100 executives from Shanghai to Los Angeles what they looked for in new hires.

“The No. 1 ask from companies today is, ‘give us graduates who have the ability to truly understand, offer value to and transform the customer,’” Giesler says. “So it’s all about the customer and about retail as an experience that people are willing to go to stores for, rather than just order online.”

Giesler’s students roam malls interviewing shoppers and scrutinize their own experience as consumers. They write columns published on the American Marketing Association’s website and in the Huffington Post proposing how to improve the public perception of city buses, say, or how to redesign restaurants with the five senses in mind.

They also learn how to operate technology to enhance the shopping experience. Last semester, students programmed Alexa, Amazon’s virtual voice assistant, to be a more personable conversation partner. “A lot of retail doesn’t take place at malls or stores anymore these days; it takes place in our home,” Giesler says. “The learning goal was to make tomorrow’s marketers understand how strong and enduring emotional consumer-technology bonds are designed and managed.”

Back at McGill, Nadeau says choosing a career in retailing makes sense despite the challenges. “The industry is increasingly attractive because it’s more focused on technology and consumer experience,” says the 23-year-old Canadian. “There was some damage, but those who adapted and survived are making big profits, and there’s great jobs at these firms.”

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