At Toronto’s Metropolitan University, A Focus on Making Retail Careers Stand Out, Again

May 29, 2024
By Mike Wilkening, Communications Manager, ARC (CMA | SIMA)

As an association serving retail, CPG, and technology providers, we’re keenly interested in the future of our industry. And while we believe AI will play an ever-increasing role in the success of your businesses, we’re bullish on the outlook for people in our world. It’s why we’ve launched “Career Launch,” and it’s why we’re doubling down on enhancing our training offering for our members.

Most of all, we’re all in on the future leaders of our field — the young professionals looking to make retail and consumer-packaged goods, and the many interconnected businesses, their business. We believe in them.

Toronto Metropolitan University does, too. The school has taught retail management since its founding in 1948, and for more than a quarter-century, it has educated thousands of students through its School of Retail Management in the Ted Rogers School of Management.

To learn more about the program and its students, we recently caught up with Dr. Donna Smith, the director of the School of Retail Management. Below is an edited version of our Q&A.

CMA: How many undergraduate students do you have in the retail management program? What kind of careers do they seek?

Smith: We have just under 500 students. If you look at all our four-year students, they go on to a variety of careers. In the beginning, all the retailers wanted was, ‘Give us people who are going to land in our stores.’  There was a war on talent for store management, but now they work all over the organization. It ranges from buying supply chain management, marketing, social media, everywhere and anywhere in a retail organization.

What brings them into our program is that the careers in retail are so diverse now because, well, it always was a huge industry, but now head offices have grown because there’s been such a growth in technology and data analytics. So we have a big thrust in buying, category management, assortment planning. That’s one sort of a big theme in our program. Then data analytics is another, and retail leadership, where they’ll go into stores, and social and digital media. That’s where we think retailers should be today. A new development in our program is we’re working on a professional master’s degree in retailing in retail transformation. We’re very, very excited about it.

CMA: You recently returned to lead the school after launching it in 1998. Tell us about that journey.

Smith: We launched in 1998 with about 60 students who were willing to take a chance on us, and we started to attract people who were working part-time in the industry. Some were in banking, some were in fashion, etc., and they really didn’t know what to expect, but the industry really welcomed them with open arms.

These people are actually interested in retail as a career, and I think it’s different in Canada than it is in the United States. I think in the U.S. retail as a career has received more enthusiasm for many years than it has in Canada. So we’ve spent a lot of time building up enthusiasm and proving that retail as a career is just as worthy as any other type of career. Now that we’ve been here for 25 years, we have students that really have become ambassadors for us.

But I have to tell you, a lot of parents, since COVID, our enrollment has gone down, because we went into stores with masks, for example, and parents say, ‘Is this really the career that I want my kids to go into?’ Retail was not very sexy during COVID, and it’s just not as worthy perhaps in a parent’s point of view as other careers, like types of careers where they can work at home.

So we are trying to build up retail as a career again, and that’s why I came back to the school to try and help rebuild retail as a career.

CMA: How do you sell students on retail as a career?

Smith: We talk about some of the jobs that our students get, and they’re just as exciting as the jobs that our marketing students get. So they’re in social media, they’re in data analytics. It’s just that the focus is this huge retail industry, which is a great employer in Canada.

We do a lot of traveling with our students in retail management. And one great thing about our program is that when we launched, we raised a lot of money, about $10 million, and it’s endowed. So I just came back from France. We took 18 students on a three-city luxury tour. The theme was luxury retailing of France and the students, we subsidized their whole land portion. Can you imagine going on a trip where you only have to pay for your flight? Oh my goodness. It was a memorable experience for them, probably the most memorable of their whole university experience.

We’re really trying to look at this and promote internally to the students in our program and get them to go out and tell the world what a great industry retail is. They have to all be our ambassadors. That’s what I tell them all the time. You have to go out and tell everyone what a great industry this is.

CMA: What’s the primary career they’re interested in?

Smith: They want to be a buyer. That hasn’t changed. They don’t really understand that the world of buying requires financial acumen and data analytics, that it’s not selection. They think it’s the world of selecting the world of fashion and selecting merchandise. They don’t understand how the job is segmented out in big companies. It’s the glamor of being a buyer. But we do place students in many junior jobs that are related to buying and category management. Some of our students go on for the certification, the category management certification.

We have an internship program between third and fourth year. We also have a co-op program, which extends our four-year Bachelor of Commerce to five years, and they do different work terms. The program’s part of the Ted Rogers School of Management co-op program. We’re the biggest, I think, co-op program in a business school in Canada. So the students have options.

We encourage students to take internships or co-ops outside of Toronto. For instance, there’s a Lululemon head office in Vancouver. If they get jobs, internships or co-ops outside of Toronto, and it could be Montreal as well, we give them an award of $5,000 due to our endowments which they can use for relocation to help them see the world outside of Toronto. We don’t want to be fully a Toronto-centric program. We want our students to understand Canada and really beyond Canada.

CMA: What sort of real-world work do students get in the classroom? Do you partner with companies on this?

Smith: Yes. The companies come into our program in different ways. The students will do a team project, and the students will present their final project to the company, and that’s how the company will judge our students. They’ll give a class a problem, a real-life problem, and then they’ll actually see the slide deck. They get all the slide decks and see how well our students perform — how did they tackle the problem, so they can actually see the level that our students are at. Whereas other companies, they will come in through a networking event through our internship program, and they’ll do a speed networking event. So from the speed networking, they’ll highlight some students to come in for in-depth interviews. And then from those interviews, they’ll select, say, three people that they’re going to hire. Each company has different criteria — Sephora is going to be different than AIA or Lululemon. Enterprise Rent-A-Car just took a whole bunch of our students. Their criteria is going to be different. Some of them say, we’re looking for behavior, we can train skills.

CMA: Do you think the in-store experience has to be strong for retail as a career to be something that still continues to grab hold of people? Or do you think it’s something that ultimately just the way that people shop and the way that more things move online that eventually it’ll just morph into meaning something else? I guess the question I have is, when a student says retail today, what do they mean? Do they still mean in-store?

Smith: I think that’s a really great question. So we teach omnichannel. That’s our perspective. In the winter, I had a hundred students in my introduction to retail in class, and they would come around the university; you can take it as an elective, an open elective in many programs. So I think that’s a pretty good sample size. And I’d ask them, ‘How do you buy your groceries? Do you get them from Instacart or online, or do you actually go in a grocery store?’

They don’t go to the grocery store anymore. They shop for clothes online. Some go into a store, but most don’t. There are different techniques for in-store and online, and you have to wow when you’re in-store. So we look at some award-winning retailers that were bricks and some that were clicks.

(We studied) a Gucci store in China that used AI to transform the whole retail environment. They use AI where you can change the walls and the windows and it makes the whole store look different. Tiffany & Co. on 5th Avenue (in New York) uses a similar sort of technique in there in the store. In bricks and mortar, there’s a lot of technology being used by the big companies to really create that ‘oh wow’ type of retail environment.

We had a talk from one of the top retail architects who did a build for a Canadian department store. So they have to tell him, ‘How many racks do they need? What are going to lie flat? What are they going to hang?’ So for each department, they need a certain sell-through, and they need certain space that’s different. In bricks and mortar, you don’t have that effect in online. There are different techniques that you need for bricks and mortar than you need for e-commerce. So you have to know both.

In a sense, retailing is harder, studying retailing, it’s much more difficult than it was in the past. When I launched the school in 1998, Amazon was so new, they were putting ads in the newspapers to direct people to the website. They couldn’t advertise online because a lot of people weren’t going online. They had to direct them online, and they were selling books and music. That was it. That was the state of retail in 1998. That was the innovation. And now we have AI transforming the whole interior of a store. There’s so much, and what’s retailing going to be in five or 10 years is probably going to change. It is always evolving, and e-commerce is going to evolve as well.

CMA: One last question. Describe the outlook of your students in three words.

Smith: Eyes open wide. They are. I went on a trip with them for seven days, three cities in France. They did not close their eyes. They were just taking everything in and observing. They were like sponges, eyes open wide. You have to learn as much as possible as fast as possible because the world is changing so quickly. And that’s why retail fascinates me.