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Changing retail reality necessitates classroom shift

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The changing realities of retail made Mark Rosenbaum come up with a different way of doing business.

With fundamental principles of the industry undergoing seismic shifts, the way students at the University of South Carolina’s College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management learn the business has to change as well. And Rosenbaum, a professor and chair of the Department of Retailing, believes the technology that has disrupted the industry is also the key to creating that adaptability.

“The key is to make sure that our students are graduating with practical skills that get them jobs,” he said. “The question is, how does one teach technology? One can wait for a textbook, but by the time the textbook is published, I promise you that technology will be outdated. So our style of teaching has to dramatically change.”

That means forging partnerships with online companies such as retail analytics program Keyhole, web development company Wix, sales management platform SalesForce, customer relationship management platform HubSpot and supply chain solutions provider JDA. These tech-focused resources create real-time content for students to rapidly digest and put to use, Rosenbaum said.

“A professor has control of the syllabus. However, the content really has to be generated by our industry partners,” he said. “We create the setting for learning. We became the conduit between our high-tech partners and students. But we can no longer wait for content to emerge in a paper format.

“For example, I could prepare a Wix lecture Week 1. Ten days later, the company changes something, and my lecture suddenly has to be tweaked. Now imagine waiting a year to change that textbook. It’s not going to happen. It can’t happen.”

The idea is that even minimal exposure to such online platforms will broaden students’ skills and make them more employable in an industry that doesn’t remotely resemble what it was a decade ago.

“Many brick-and-mortar retailers will soon go under, and we have the death of the enclosed mall, and we have the massive loss of physical retail space,” Rosenbaum said. “So a retailing program that initially depended on retailers like Belk, Target, Kohls, as well as other brick-and-mortar stores, is not going to survive. … Even being exposed to some of the software gives my students an advantage in the marketplace. Even if you’re familiar with the interface, you’re a step ahead.”

Rosenbaum came to USC a year ago after serving as the Kohl’s Professor of Retailing at Northern Illinois University. He immediately saw an opportunity to connect the retailing program with high-tech partners at every level.

“If you said, well, what exactly is retailing? Is it working in promotions for a retail/fashion organization? Well, you have to know social media monitoring,” he said. “If it’s entrepreneurship, you have to know how to operate a website business. Every partner brings something different to the table.”

Along with exposure to operating platforms, the partnerships bring the opportunity for students to earn certification in areas such as coding.

“What I’m looking forward to is making sure that students obtain not just knowledge but certification, third-party certification, to add value,” said Rosenbaum, who said more pieces of the overall curriculum puzzle will be in place by next fall.

Rosenbaum’s own retail career began when he was 13, and he worked retail throughout college and graduate school, obtaining his PhD in marketing from Arizona State University.

“I suppose I always brought practice in with my PhD,” he said. “Most of my retail career was spent selling women’s shoes at Saks Fifth Avenue. I have great memories selling high-end shoes to a target market that I call Ladies Who Lunch. That target segment no longer exists.”

That’s not to say retail jobs are disappearing. While smaller box stores may need fewer on-site employees, opportunities still exist in supply chain, ecommerce and entrepreneurial offshoots, Rosenbaum said.

“A lot of students are realizing the necessity and ease of being small business operators,” he said. “A lot of fashion merchandising majors who originally envisioned themselves as buyers in department stores quickly came to the realization that they need to be buyers for themselves. It’s a shift in thinking, because if you wanted to work, let’s say, with large department stores, they no longer exist. … It used to be at one time that large department stores came to the marketing departments and just hired our students. That’s not going to happen anymore. We have to train (students) differently if we want to exist.”

Rosenbaum envisions that training evolving into a reciprocal relationship with the Columbia community and, eventually, the entire state. He painted a picture of technology-savvy retail students helping local small businesses get a website, complete with a booking function, up and running in minutes.

“I would like to offer students practicum opportunities where they work with real companies who don’t even know where to begin,” he said. “In the future, I think our partnerships will benefit the entrepreneurs of South Carolina. … The first phase is for us to get the technology in place. The next phase is not only to benefit students but to benefit the surrounding community and state.”


Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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