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UW-Madison center makes a name for retail

April 2, 2008 By Kristin Czubkowski

About three years ago, a group of University of Wisconsin–Madison alumni debating the revival of the School of Human Ecology’s Center for Retailing Excellence asked many retail companies what their opinions were on the school’s graduates. The overwhelming answer: "We don’t know."

Photo of student working at store

Kelly Mansell, a UW–Madison student, right, gets firsthand experience in the retail industry by working as an intern at The Purple Goose, a Verona women and children’s clothing store. Halley Jones, the shop’s owner, center, says, “I just love interns. They just bring this energy because they’re here to learn.”

Photo: Bryce Richter

One executive, though, the CEO of Kohl’s Department Stores, said he would get back to them.

"He did a little research, and called back and said, ‘Well, we hire more from UW, they stay longer and they promote faster. We like it a lot. What can we do to help it be better?’" says Jerry O’Brien, the center’s director. Using a seed grant of $200,000 from that company, along with other prominent sponsors such as Target and Shopko, O’Brien was hired to reinvigorate the center, which had become less active over time due to funding issues.

Besides making a name for UW–Madison students among retail companies, another main objective for the center is promoting retail as a career path for all types of students — from history to retail to pharmacy majors — and dispelling myths about working in retail. Myths such as low pay and long hours are untrue, O’Brien says.

"Our goal with the students is to introduce them to the wide variety of careers that the industry offers. Most students are aware that you can be a buyer or a store manager, but there’s so much more to it than that," he says.

While many companies contribute financially to the center, which operates without state funding, they also are involved personally with students through networking or career-related events, a lecture series, a symposium class that features a weekly speaker and by hiring interns. Students can intern nationally at major corporations such as Macy’s, which is headquartered in New York, regionally at companies such as Kohl’s and Land’s End, and locally at stores such as The Purple Goose, a Verona-based women and children’s clothing store.

The owner of The Purple Goose, Halley Jones, says she began hiring UW–Madison student interns as soon as she opened her store in October 2005 — even before the Center for Retailing Excellence had been revived.

"I just love interns," she says. "They just bring this energy because they’re here to learn. Things change all the time in retail, and they’re really excited about different ideas that we come up with together and trying different things."

When O’Brien first contacted Jones to become involved in the center, she took him up on his offer, agreeing to speak at one of the symposium’s class meetings. She says she enjoys being involved because she can offer a unique perspective as a smaller, more localized retailer to students, both those in class and those serving as interns.

Students seeking jobs and internships also benefit from the center’s close relationship with upper-level management at many larger companies. Amy Katschnig, a UW–Madison retail major and president of the Retail Club, says she was having trouble looking for an internship in the fall of 2006. She would apply online, but often would not hear from companies or get past an initial interview. During a trip to Chicago organized by the center, she met contacts for the American Girl Co. and Crate and Barrel, and was eventually offered internships at each. Beyond the trip, she adds, the events orchestrated by the center and the Retail Club help students ease into networking with retail employers.

"We all know … that networking is so important, but it’s really intimidating to go to someone in this company because you think they have all the power in the world, and you’re just a student here who doesn’t know that much," she says. "So I think that the small events and just keep encouraging students to network — it breaks down some of that intimidation factor, so that really helps."

Although getting funding and helping students and companies connect has been the center’s initial focus, School of Human Ecology Dean Robin Douthitt says the next step is focusing on research. One of the biggest advantages of UW–Madison that the alumni task force noted is its strong graduate schools and research tradition, she says. Developing research projects with specific companies can create a mutually beneficial relationship by improving a retailer’s business while allowing graduate students to work with real data and issues in retail.

O’Brien adds that a grant from the Kauffman Foundation is also allowing the center to discuss creating a separate symposium for privately owned, smaller retailers to discuss starting their own businesses. Another project involves linking together alumni to form a contact database among retailers.

"It’s very exciting. The truth of the matter is, the hardest thing is prioritizing where we should go next," he says. "We want to do what we do well, then go on."