FSU Retail Innovation Center prepares students for an ever-changing industry
What’s a high-tech, global, $5 trillion industry offering tremendous opportunities for career and income growth?
As the Florida State University College of Business explains it, the modern retail industry is far more expansive than meets the eye, encompassing everything from product development to changing technologies and customized supply chains.
The need for retail managers has never been greater, and the opportunities never so ripe for bright college graduates to launch a career in the retail world.
In a somewhat rare partnership, the FSU colleges of Business and Human Sciences have joined forces to cross academic lines and create the FSU Retail Innovation Center. The mission behind the joint venture is to make students job-ready, and to build upon a shared concept of integrating real-world experience into the science of retail.
FSU’s College of Human Sciences already runs the Retail, Merchandising and Product Development Center — or FSU Retail Center for short — under the leadership of industry veteran and Retail Center director Ann Langston.
Currently, the Retail Center mainly focuses on providing a point of synergy between retailing and related industries, the faculty and the students of the college’s Department of Retail, Merchandising and Product Development (RMPD).
In addition to hosting speakers and recruiters on campus, the center sponsors annual events focused on professionally developing the RMPD students: the Scholarship Dinner, where companies provide scholarships and networking opportunities for students; the Retail Summit, an intense conference with lectures featuring insider perspectives on the future of retailing and product development; and the Retail Focus Panel, which features FSU graduates with careers in the retail industry sharing advice with students.
The FSU College of Business, recognizing the value of such industry-student-faculty interactions, has for years had a cross-course requirement with the RMPD department, so students in either program are exposed to both the business and creative sides of retail management.
For Retail Center founder Jim McLaughlin, developing a next-generation Retail Center as a collaborative project was the natural next step in this fruitful partnership with his new “home” at the College of Business. He set the idea into motion, and colleague Luke Hopkins, assistant chair of the college’s Department of Marketing, worked with Langston to bring it to life.
“The Retail Innovation Center was fueled by a $350,000 investment from the Florida Retail Federation,” Langston explained. “Its members were interested in expanding the offerings for retail programs across academia and tying together the two approaches at FSU.”
The new Retail Innovation Center will build on what Langton’s team is already doing and add in more collaborative retail industry partners, investments from the industry and focus on bringing a more in-depth experience for the two programs’ students.
“It will be the one of the only centers of its kind in the U.S.,” Hopkins pointed out. “That is, a collaboration between the retail programs of two colleges in one university.”
Students in the College of Business’ Retail Management program learn the business side of retail — management, supply chain, marketing, etc. — while the College of Human Sciences’ RMPD scholars focus more on the merchandising function, including business strategy, design, product development, planning, allocating, buying, distribution, personnel management, floor merchandising and sales.
In addition, College of Business students get exposure mainly to the grocery, home improvement and service sub-industries in retail, while Langston’s RMPD students focus on “softlines” and lifestyle products such as clothing and home department stores.
“The Retail Innovation Center provides a resource for cross-exposure for students and retailers,” Hopkins said. “We already work very closely with the FSU Career Center, and our internship programs are very strong. With this Innovation Center, we can dig down and cover the breadth of the major (from both sides) but also drill down into the specialties.”
Industry partners such as HSN, Stein Mart, Ashley Furniture, Southeastern Grocers, ALDI, The Vitamin Shoppe, Ross, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Aveda and Turner Fine Furniture invest in the project through their annual dues and other fundraising events. They also provide internship placements for students in both programs, which is something retail graduates — and the retail industry — both need.
“We have a very strong partnership with FSU that has come from our membership with the Retail Center,” said HSN’s Sandy Soto, vice president of talent acquisition. “This has led to a strong internship program at HSN, which has become a very strong pipeline for our entry-level positions for our Merchandising and Planning organization. The strength of our internship program and the experience it provides to the students has received great recognition.”
Bringing the two halves together in one Retail Innovation Center is a win-win for students and faculty in both programs, and it’s an idea that also excites the industry members of the Retail Center.
“The ability to work with the school’s faculty and influence the school’s curriculum is an incredible opportunity for us,” Soto noted. “The business world — and the retail world at large — has and continues to change. The consumer, in terms of how they shop; the product and how it gets to market; pricing, presentation, the world of technology and shopping, are intersecting and evolving at rapid speed. Being a part of the Retail Center has allowed HSN to share current business changes and trends that could be integrated in curriculum, coursework and lectures. In turn, this allows the schools’ programs and students to be current in their business knowledge.”
Besides fueling innovation at the academic level — Langston and Hopkins will bring the research side of retail academics into the center at a future point — Soto also points out that influencing students early in their career prospecting and collaborating with other retailers in the center are big bonuses for the company.
“Even though we are all competitors, we are all advocates of this great retail industry,” she explained. “We all want great talent, and we want the students to see what the industry offers — opportunities, careers, longevity and great partnerships.”
When the College of Business moves into the new building it has planned, the Retail Innovation Center will have new digs, complete with centralized offices for co-directors Langston and Hopkins, as well as facilities for training and meetings.
For now, though, the Retail Innovation Center will begin its expansion in programmatic ways, bringing together industry leaders to give feedback and roundtable discussions at events such as the annual Seminole Futures employment event and developing an advisory board packed with center partners.
Hopkins and Langston recognize that this innovative — and non-traditional, academically speaking — approach to academia-industry partnership is an accomplishment in itself. But they are quick to talk about the visions they have for its future, and the leadership above and around them that brought it to life.
“FSU is very entrepreneurial,” Hopkins said. “The deans at both colleges have the same philosophy — thinking outside the box — and that’s what’s allowed this idea to grow. I think the issue will be how to keep the reins on it once it gets going.”
For partners such as HSN’s Soto, that will be a welcome challenge.