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Students on the Retail Roadtrip pose in Times Square.

Retail Road Trip: An Inside Look at Digital Retail Companies

Forty-four Syracuse University students recently went on a unique immersion when The iSchool and the Whitman School of Management’s Retail Management Program collaborated to present the Retail Road Trip.

The road trip is an overnight field trip for students to explore the intersection of retail and technology. Students had the opportunity to visit big names in retail, as well as some up-and-coming companies who are using technology to promote retail in innovative ways.

The Retail Road Trip is one of many road trips the iSchool runs, with one occurring each semester. This year’s lineup included companies Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Gilt Groupe, Quirky, Story, and Amazon.

Leveraging Tech

“All of these companies, for different reasons, are at a point where they’re revolutionizing retail by leveraging technology,” said Julie Walas, a coordinator of the Retail Road Trip and the director of academic advising and student engagement in the iSchool.

The first Retail Road Trip (2011) coincided with the launch of the Digital Retail Strategies Concentration, a collaboration between the iSchool and the Whitman Retail program. The program’s goal is to expose retail students to the technology side of business, and to expose technology students to the business side of retail.

Students on the Retail Roadtrip at Quirky headquarters.
Student on the Retail Road trip take in the sights at Quirky.

Though any undergraduate student in the iSchool or any student majoring in the Whitman Retail Management program could have applied to go on the trip, it’s intended to get students interested in taking on the concentration between Whitman and the iSchool.

“I think it opens their minds,” said Linda Cushman, an associate professor of retail management in Whitman. “What we always tell them [retail students] is that it’s all about learning how to communicate with people who are digital, not be the digital person.”

And for the students who are the digital people, it’s learning more about the buying and selling process. “Our students understand digital, but they really don’t understand retail,” said Jeff Rubin, associate professor of practice at the iSchool and CEO of SIDEARM Sports, who was involved in the genesis of the Retail Road Trip idea. “They don’t understand buying, and I think if you can bridge these two processes, it’s really neat to see the collaborations that can take place.”

Convention and Innovation

On this road trip, students still had the chance to visit conventional retail companies, like Macy’s, but the focus shifted to include strictly digital retail companies. Amazon, for example, was a new addition to the itinerary. “Amazon clearly has transcended all boundaries,” Walas said. “They proposed the idea of drone delivery services, and so that gets into some awesome things.”

Though Amazon was a new stop, the trip returned to Gilt Groupe, an online shopping company. This time, students got to see where the site’s photoshoots are done, in addition to the corporate offices.

Taylor Murphy, a junior information management and technology major, noted that this trip was her third to the company’s headquarters. The first time was when she went on the Retail Road Trip as a freshman; the second, as part of another iSchool field trip, EntreTech NYC; and then this visit.

As a freshman, Murphy went on the trip as a way to figure out what area of technology she wanted to pursue. Though she went on many of the field trips the iSchool offers, she always found herself drawn to the retail side of technology. “I wanted to go on the Retail Road Trip again because I feel like I’m more interested in doing the retail side of it, retail tech, rather than other road trips that I’ve gone on.”

The networking aspect of the trip encouraged Murphy to go a second time. “It’s one of the only times that we have to be face-to-face with people that will potentially be our coworkers or bosses,” Murphy said. “It’s just interesting to talk to them because we don’t really have those opportunities otherwise.”

“It’s one of the only times that we have to be face-to-face with people that will potentially be our coworkers or bosses.”

Creating Networks

Walas said facilitating networking opportunities for students is one of the major goals of the trip. “We can connect current students with our alumni” Walas said. “We’ll host an alumni event at every road trip and bring our young students together with our young alums.”

Members of the Gilt tech team present to students on the Retail Roadtrip.
Members of the Gilt tech team present to students on the Retail Roadtrip.

Cushman agreed that the trip’s success has to do with Syracuse University alumni. “We are so grateful for all the alums that work at these various companies and help us get a foot in the door. The SU alum are very loyal and they work very hard on behalf of the students that are coming after them.”

Considering that a recent poll conducted by SU Career Services suggests that networking is the best way to obtain a job after graduation, the Retail Road Trip has the right idea.

“They’re not inviting us in just because we call and say we’re Syracuse University,”  Rubin said. “They’re looking for future employees.”

Applied Learning

However, networking isn’t the only focus. Another objective is to show students how their classroom learning can be applied in the real world. Murphy said the first road trip showed her how her technical skills would be applicable to real life.

“It definitely puts into perspective the things you learn in class,” said Murphy, “how it relates to a real life business and company.”

Rubin summed up the overarching goal of the trip: to show students the dream jobs that could become reality. “What I’m hoping is that these students come away with this understanding or appreciation of the complexity of digital retail, and perhaps a little more interest to say ‘Wow, I could see myself working there,’” Rubin said. “Wherever that is, any one of these places we go to – ‘I could see myself doing that.’’

Have you gone on a road trip immersion? What were your impressions? What did you get out of it? Let us know in the comments!

Kate Beckman

Kate Beckman is a sophomore studying magazine journalism in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. After launching her own publication freshman year, Juiced Magazine, Kate worked at Cosmopolitan.com during the summer as a web intern, and now hopes to report on emerging technology and entrepreneurship. She can be reached at kebeckma@syr.edu or followed on Twitter @kate_beckman.

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