High-profile closures such as Sears in the United States and BHS in the UK in recent years have led many to predict the death of retail but Ireland’s first master’s programme in retail leadership is firmly focused on the retail resurrection, according to course director Prof Damien McLoughlin.
Students on the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School course will learn to become business leaders who advance change and innovate in the retail industry around the world, he says. "The course is ahead of its time," he adds. "A lot of people today are talking about the death of retailing, what we are really thinking about is the resurrection of retail. Retail is still about selling stuff to people and that's not going to change."
He explains that while retail trends may change, the need for retailing itself continues. “Twenty years ago, people went to different shopping centres to buy different things; they went to supermarkets to buy food and groceries, they went to the city centre for fashion, they went to other specialist shops for furniture and so on. The growth of online shopping has changed retailing in that sense. But while everyone is talking about the end of retail but there is still a requirement to sell to you, me, our children, our parents and our grandparents.”
In fact, all companies who sell anything will have to learn about retailers in what Americans call the “belly-to-belly” model. “They don’t have to try to get retailers to stock their products any more. They can put them online for people to buy. We will prepare people who wish to work in retailing to help lead the transition from bricks and mortar to the new environment.”
The MSc in retail leadership will develop the critical skills of a business leader who wishes to pursue a career in retail or in any related industries. The programme is rooted in strategic and operational marketing philosophies and practices, while also developing core general management capabilities in areas such as strategy, technology and data.
Working with leading international companies, the programme will offer students practical experience as they gain a deeper understanding of the implications of different retail propositions and practices from various sectors and cultures.
The MSc has emerged from a unique collaboration between the Garfield Weston Foundation and UCD. Inspired by Breege O'Donoghue's outstanding achievements and career with Primark, the partnership honours her contribution to the sector by funding the creation of the MSc in retail leadership programme.
McLoughlin points to Amazon as an example of the challenges faced by both retailers and brands in the new environment. "Amazon is easily the greatest company in the world," he says. "They are brilliant at everything they do. But you have to think about what they do. When you go online to buy a pair of size 10 shoes in a certain brand Amazon shows you a list of alternatives along the side of the page. Amazon shreds the brand."
That means companies have to think about new ways of building their brands. They can’t just hope that people will choose them ahead of competitors on a crowded web page. That has led companies like Tesla to open city-centre stores for its high-end cars – not so much to sell them as to build brand awareness.
"If you are Tesla a great way to build the brand is to have a store," he says. "Nike has an experience store in New York. The brand becomes more important in an environment where there is so much choice and so many alternatives. We have also entered an era of hyper-personalisation. Instead of going to a shoe store and asking for a shoe in a certain size you will go to a place like the Nike experience store where your feet will be measured precisely. That data will be stored online. Next time you go to buy Nike shoes online they will be made to measure for you."
And you won’t be able to get that from any other brand because they don’t have your measurements.
"This is an entirely new landscape," McLoughlin says. "We are preparing the new leaders for retail and related sectors. The focus on leadership was insisted on by our industry partners. Leadership is what is required at present. The programme is totally industry led. We have spent time in Asia to see what's happening in retail there.
"A lot of leading edge activity is happening in Japan. They have the most innovative culture in the world when it comes to fashion, for example. Also, China never had a retail culture like we had. They have skipped a generation and gone straight to online. We have a lot to learn from Asia. There is also a strong research dimension with the focus on branding, consumer behaviour and exploring the future of retailing. These three areas intersect on the programme."
Applications for the MSc in retail leadership are now open at smurfitschool.ie/programmes/masters/mscinretailleadership/