The coming crop of digital retail professionals is more data-driven than ever.
It stands to reason. Retail — and digital retail in particular — is moving ahead at breakneck speed. Marketing software and e-commerce platforms have been evolving and proliferating to the point that some already in the business today feel overwhelmed by the choices.
But when it comes to data and the tools to wrangle it, those headed for retail careers say, “Bring it.”
“I would say that 100 percent of our students understand the importance of analytics,” says Sanjukta Pookulangara, an associate professor at the University of North Texas’ College of Merchandising, Hospitality & Tourism. “They do understand that data is a critical piece in this puzzle, because that helps them make better decisions.”
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The University of North Texas, in Denton, is not a bad place to start when examining the mindset of the next generation of site merchandisers and digital retailers moving into key industry positions. The school is unusual in the depth of its focus on digital retailing and its students are regularly honored for their work by the National Retail Federation.
Moreover, the work being done by UNT students and instructors provides a vivid illustration of how quickly retail fields are evolving. While data and figuring out what the data says have always been important in retail, the digital revolution has supercharged their importance.
“I think what the consumer is demanding is changing dramatically, along with the technology that is being offered,” says Portia Griffin, a dual-major senior studying merchandising and digital retailing. “They even tell us in class, ‘By the time you graduate, most of this information won’t be relevant anymore.’”
Site merchandising changes by the minute — or so it seems
That is not to say the lessons learned will not be valuable, just that the specific tools, and even some methods, will be out of date by the time students land their first jobs after graduation.
For instance, the class of 2012, the year Griffin, 22, started her undergraduate studies, would have been amazed then by the analytics tools available today.
Griffin, herself, has seen the evolution, given that a big part of UNT’s curriculum involves hands-on projects, including building an online store and analyzing sales and consumer habits. (Full disclosure: Among the new breed of tools that Griffin has explored is BloomReach’s Compass product.)
“All the different types of data collection is amazing,” she says. “It’s exciting for me to look at. I was just amazed at what you could pull.”
Lindsey Tanoff, who expects to finish her merchandising masters program in the spring, says the pace of retail change is definitely impressive. When she started her undergraduate studies in 2007, she didn’t sense the kind of emphasis that is placed on data in 2016, though she says that might be attributed to her own interests at the time.
“Retail definitely changes very quickly. And it’s not even retail, it’s the consumer who changes so quickly,” says Tanoff, 28, who went to work in retail before returning for her masters.
And sure, some of the change in merchandise that a store offers is a function of changing seasons or fashion trends, but there is more to it than that. To remain relevant, retailers must find ways to understand their customers and anticipate their desires.
“The merchandise is also changing with the consumer shopping habits,” Tanoff added. “In retail, everyone has to change because the consumer changes.”
No doubt, changing shopping habits and evolving technology make for an exciting field. Tanoff, who teaches an undergraduate course at UNT on consumers in a global market, says professors and instructors frequently talk about ways to keep their work current.
One site merchandising constant: actionable data
“It always seems like they’re saying they’re doing new research and new curriculum for the next semester,” she says, “because something changed, or there is some kind of new platform that needs to be talked about.”
Data, however, appears to be here to stay.
Both Griffin and Tanoff have digital retailing on their list of potential jobs after graduation. And both say they expect to have access to voluminous data and the tools to make quick sense out of what the data is telling them about their customers.
“You can’t have a successful retailer, a successful fashion company, without the data to either drive sales or help in the creation of new designs, new styles, new lines,” Tanoff says.
Sure, Griffin says, there is a need for merchandisers to rely on their intuition and experience when it comes to representing and respecting their brands. But that is not enough. There is a need to marry intuition with data.
“I really like data, but I’ve always had to be the gut-feeling person. I’ve never actually had the data to back up my gut feelings,” says Griffin, who’s worked for retailers through high school and college. “I really like numbers. They make me feel better.”
In some ways, it’s a view that encapsulates contemporary site merchandising.
“Analytics has always been important to merchandising,” says associate professor Pookulangara. “The only difference now is it’s much more sophisticated.”
And while the end goals are time-honored, the methods for achieving them require a more sophisticated set of skills.
“It’s still a store,” Pookulangara says of a digital commerce site. “You still have to make a profit. You still have to know your ROI. So it’s extremely important that they need to understand analytics, both in terms of site analytics, as well as web analytics.”
It seems that those who are looking to digital retail as a career are on board with the need to step up the industry’s analytics game. The fun part will be watching just how far they take it.
Photo of Muji store by Mike Cassidy. Photos of Portia Griffin and Lindsey Tanoff courtesy of Griffin and Tanoff respectively.
Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.