Given NRF Foundation’s extensive involvement with college and university retail programs across the country, we were thrilled to hear that STORES would be interviewing Barbara Kahn, the new Director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center at The Wharton School. In our continuation of that interview, we find out more about the Retailing Center’s programs, impressive alumni, and why retailing is a fascinating context for learning critical business skills.
As director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center at The Wharton School, you collaborate with more than 50 industry partners to expand resources available to faculty and students to support education, outreach and research. How have these partners contributed to the development of your students? Can you share an example?
Our partners have offered their expertise to our students in many different ways. They have been keynote speakers at our conferences; for example, last year Roger Farah (President and COO of Polo Ralph Lauren Corporation) spoke at our annual Penn Fashion Week and this year Vera Wang and William Fung (Group Managing Director of Li & Fung Limited) will speak.
Many of our partners have provided guest speakers from various areas in their organizations to come into our classrooms as a way of bringing relevant retailing experience into our courses. They have also worked with faculty and students to develop research and consulting projects.
For example, I am currently working with a group of students on a term project for Dress Barn and I have worked with Perry Ellis and student groups to develop brand strategies and social media concepts. Finally, many of our partners have hired our students for internships or full-time employment.
Why do you think retail provides attractive career opportunities for young people today?
Retailing is the largest industry in the United States, and it is a very diverse industry. It is an especially interesting time to get involved in retailing as the industry grapples with multi-channel opportunities. How will e-commerce, m-commerce or f-commerce affect traditional bricks-and-mortar stores?
While merchandising might be at the heart of a lot of retailing decision-making, there are also critical issues in supply chain management, in real estate decisions, in branding decisions, in human resources and in controlling operational efficiencies and costs. Many retailers are now developing global strategies as well.
Retailing provides a fascinating context for all of these critical business skills. Plus students who have an entrepreneurial bent usually gravitate towards some form of retailing.
You have an extensive background in higher education and academia (as a dean and professor of marketing at University of Miami and a published author in several industry journals, to name a few accomplishments). In a recent interview, you said “being an academic is the best job in the world.” What led you back to The Wharton School and the Retailing Center in particular?
For the last three and a half years I have been the dean of the School of Business Administration at the University of Miami. I am proud of the accomplishments that we achieved while I was dean there; we saw a big jump in our ratings, we made some very prestigious new faculty hires and we brought in better and better students to our programs. It was a very exciting time.
Although I really enjoyed being at University of Miami, it was not an ideal place for my family. Since I had spent 17 years at The Wharton School as a chaired professor of marketing and I was also vice dean of the Wharton Undergraduate Division before going to Miami, it was a natural place for me to return. I have very strong ties to the school and to the marketing department.
I also had very strong ties to Jay Baker. Many years ago, when he was president of Kohl’s, he helped me develop a creative term project for my consumer behavior classes. He came to the classroom several times with many of his top executives to make sure that the students had the most up-to-date information to work on their projects. The students loved him, and the projects were a huge success both for them and for Kohl’s. A few of those students ended up choosing a career in retailing once they graduated. I was delighted to have the opportunity to work with Jay again in this new role.
Any retail experience in your background? How did retail become an area of interest?
After graduating with an undergraduate degree I decided to work a few years before going back to graduate school. I worked in advertising and public relations, and many of my clients were in retailing businesses. I became interested in their problems and in creating effective marketing strategies for them.
When I went back to graduate school, I focused my research on understanding how consumers make decisions, why they buy what they buy. I studied brand loyalty, variety seeking and the design of product assortments — all issues that are very important in retailing. I also co-wrote a book on the supermarket industry called Grocery Revolution: The New Focus on the Consumer.
The Wharton School will graduate a new crop of undergraduates and MBA students in May. I’m sure many have come to you for advice and words of wisdom. What do you tell them?
This is a stressful time for students as the job market is more competitive than it has ever been. It is important when students are at Wharton to make sure that they take advantage of all of the opportunities that they have here, both in and out of the classroom. They have the chance to learn new and valuable skills and to form relationships that can last a lifetime.
When looking for a job, now is the time to try and follow one’s passion, to look for a job that can offer a lifetime career opportunity. While one does not have to stay in any job forever, finding a career path that makes sense for the long term is certainly an attractive option. I do think retailing offers that option to students.
Alumni can be great ambassadors for your program and retail. How do you keep them engaged in The Wharton School’s activities? Do you have any stellar graduates making a name in retailing you’d like to mention?
Many of our advisory board members are graduates of Wharton starting with Jay Baker himself! Also, Mohammed Alshaya (WG ‘84), CEO of M.H. Alshaya Company; Roger Farah (W ‘74), president and COO of Polo Ralph Lauren; Sam Haddad (W ‘93), president of Haddad Brands; Brendan Hoffman (WG ‘97), president and CEO of Lord & Taylor LLC; David Jaffe (W ‘81), president and CEO of Ascena Retail Group, Inc.; William Lauder (W ‘83), executive chairman, chairman of the board of The Estee Lauder Companies, Inc.; Pierre Yves Roussel (WG ‘93), CEO, fashion division of LVMH; Mark Schwartz (W ‘79), president, CEO of Palladin Capital Group, Inc.; Daniel Schwarzwalder (WG ‘72), senior managing director of Buckingham Capital Management; Steven Silverstein (WG ‘85), president and CEO of Spencer Gifts; and Robert Trone (W ‘81), founder of Total Wine & More …. Just to name a few!
In addition to serving as director of Wharton’s Retailing Center, you are a professor of marketing. What is your favorite course to teach, and why?
My favorite courses to teach are Consumer Behavior and Strategic Brand Management. These are courses that combine consumer psychology, customer analytics and strategic thinking in a creative fashion. They are so much fun to teach.
What else should retailers and others know about the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center and your programs and plans?
This is an exciting time for the Center and for the Retailing Industry. Changing technologies, consolidation in the industry and the move to a global marketplace presents tremendous opportunity for innovative solutions. We at the Center want to be right in the middle of it. We are looking to develop new curriculum for our courses, to create state-of-the-art new knowledge that will be relevant for the industry and to train our students to take leadership roles in the retailing world.
For more about the typical day-in-the-life of a marketing professor, read the full NRF STORES interview with Barbara Kahn.