Researching the retail future


Innovation Profile DIT: The Arthur Ryan Research Centre aims to establish links between academia and the retail sector

It is not generally appreciated but Ireland is very much to the fore when it comes to modern retailing practice. Indeed, there are now 247 Primark stores across Europe which should probably have “Born in Ireland” signs hanging over their doors.

While owned by Associated British Foods, Primark is very much an Irish chain which was set up by Dubliner Arthur Ryan, who opened the first store under the Penneys brand in Dublin’s Mary Street in 1969. He took the chain to Britain in the 1970s but changed its name to Primark to avoid any chance of litigation by US retailer JC Penney which itself was considering expansion into Europe at the time.

From those small beginnings, Ryan transformed Penneys into one of Europe’s top clothing retailers and probably its leading “fast fashion” chain with stores in Ireland, Britain, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

Ryan’s name and legacy are now set to live on in a new research centre located at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Aungier Street. The Arthur Ryan Retail Centre has been named in recognition of his contribution to retail innovation and is funded by the Garfield Weston Foundation which was established by the Weston family, whose business interests include a majority stake in Associated British Foods.

The aim of the centre is to serve as an interface between academia and the retail sector. “Our ongoing research work will contribute towards the development of sustainable retail policy, effective retail education and supportive retail services for the retail and services community in Ireland and internationally,” explains John Jameson, head of the School of Retail and Services Management at DIT.

Launching the new centre in September, Arthur Ryan said that while the retail sector acts as a barometer for how the economy is performing, for its future success it must understand and analyse developments in areas such as technology, procurement and sourcing, logistics and marketing.

“The pace of change in the retail sector is enormous and business is increasingly international,” Ryan noted. “To stay competitive, there is a constant need to innovate and to anticipate trends. The DIT College of Business has always provided excellent support and expertise to the retail sector in Ireland and I believe this new centre will become a hub for educational opportunities, research, and industry outreach programmes.”

The centre builds on the work which has been ongoing in the School of Retail and Services Management for the past 30 years. This is Ireland’s largest and longest established retail management school with full-time courses at postgraduate, honours degree and higher certificate level as well as a range of part-time undergraduate courses and executive education.

“We offer a range of degree programmes in the retail services area as well as higher certificate programmes in different aspects of retailing such as security, retail enterprise, retail management and so on,” says Jameson.

The school also works closely with external organisations and partners. “We have developed a number of part-time programmes in conjunction with Dublin Chamber of Commerce and we have designed a programme for Retail Excellence Ireland. These courses are delivered on a two-day-per-month basis with the participants going back to their workplaces and applying what they have learned. We also work with IBEC on the Skillnet Programme as well as on the Export Orientation Programme,” Jameson adds.

Other training and educational partners include GS1 Ireland, the European Retail Academy, Musgrave Retail Partners Ireland, BWG Foods, Dublin Airport Authority, Xtravision and Hickey’s Pharmacies.

The involvement of external partners is extremely important to both the Ryan Centre and the school.

“Industry participation is one of the most important aspects of our work”, says assistant head of school Colin Hughes. “The collaborative design process between the industry and ourselves means we achieve the right balance between academia and pragmatism in our programmes and activities. That can be very helpful. For example, in one case one of our staff members went out on delivery trucks to find out what happens to goods at the store delivery point.

“What we say in the school is that we can bring people from CPD to PhD,” Hughes continues. “There are a lot of great people in the retail sector who have grown up in the industry with no formal qualifications. We give them the opportunity to avail of continuing professional development and to take that on as far as they want right the way through to PhD level if they wish.”

The school also houses the DIT Retail Research Unit which has amassed considerable experience in conducting retailer- client research, consultancy and sectoral competitiveness analysis. Previous work conducted in the unit includes national and European projects involving market sizing, supply-chain competitiveness and managing cultural diversity within retailing in Europe.

The Arthur Ryan Retail Centre provides a conduit for increased interaction between the retail sector and the academic research and teaching being provided by the school. “The centre will identify the information gaps which exist as well as contributing towards retail policy through academic and practical research,” says Jameson. “It will also offer objective and independent research capability to retailers.”

Retail policy is one area of research which will be very significant in the coming years. “We will be looking at how towns and streets are affected by the location of shopping centres and the location of out of town centres,” says Hughes.

“This is one of the hottest topics around at the moment. We hope to be able to assist when legislation is being formed on issues such as store size and the type of products which shops are allowed to deal in. At the very least we will be able to provide objective information which contributes to the debate.”

Other areas of research and teaching will involve fashion buying, supply-chain management, from design through manufacturing and onto the store shelf, new communications technologies, geographic information systems, merchandising and marketing, and a host of other topics of interest to modern retailers.

“We bring together industry representative bodies, retail organisations and international academic partners with the expertise we have developed in the school here in DIT,” says Hughes.

“These partners will feed into specialised commissioned research, international retail analysis, postgraduate research and other activities, which in turn will be the basis for industry facing education to develop future retail employees, open and customised programmes for retail professionals, and regular seminars and industry events. We will also offer scholarships for world-class researchers.”

The Arthur Ryan Retail Centre is currently based at DIT Aungier Street and is planned to move to the new Grangegorman campus in the next five years.

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