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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
May 16, 2006
DeKalb — Soccer moms, or Hillary Duff wannabes?
A supervised play area offering while-you-shop child care, or a hip lounge with egg-shell-shaped chairs, plasma TVs and copies of Seventeen magazine?
Six executives from Kohl's faced those competing recommendations for targeted customer bases during a visit last week to Northern Illinois University's Barsema Hall, where they heard marketing advice on a variety of topics from 32 students in Julie Hillery's retailing class.
Hillery, an associate professor in the NIU School of Family, Consumer and Nutrition Sciences who also holds a courtesy appointment in the Department of Marketing, is the Kohl's Professor of Retailing and Merchandising.
The top four teams in the fourth annual competition won prizes of $2,000, $1,000, $500 and $500 respectively.
Each team had two students from the Textiles, Apparel and Merchandising program in the College of Health and Human Sciences and two marketing students from the College of Business.
“I introduce the project the first week of class and tell them to look at any current trend in the retail market today and to examine Kohl's in that trend,” said Hillery, who in 2005 won an Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award. “They definitely have to look at the real world. This is not textbook stuff.”
Students update Hillery on their progress throughout the semester while they visit Kohl's stores and hear guest lectures from Kohl's management about the corporate philosophy.
Todd McClement, university relations manager for the Menomonee Falls, Wis.-based retailer, calls the scholarship competition “phenomenal.” Good ideas “definitely” are passed up to senior management, he said.
“These are ideas on things we at Kohl's can do to better our company and to improve our business and service,” McClement said. “The students have done their research. They've done competitive analysis. Is it working? How could we adapt?”
Hillery's students put forward ideas on celebrity endorsements, ethnic markets, “massclusivity,” pet products, “retailtainment,” simplifying lifestyles and technology. Their presentations required a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats – and real-world applications.
In just the first half-hour, the executives were encouraged to focus more on the “junior” market of teen girls and warned about losing sight of their “original” appeal to mothers.
In return, the executives asked tough questions: What kind of financial return are Kohl's competitors seeing on “retailtainment” ventures? Can Kohl's justify turning over valuable retail space to a non-profit lounge in a revenue-per-square-foot equation? Would the addition of self-check lanes escalate theft, and how would they still promote Kohl's charge cards?
“There's a competitive spirit among the students,” Hillery said. “They're trying to out-do each other with current stuff they know is relevant.”
Kohl's long has expected great things from NIU.
Hillery initiated the relationship about eight years ago as she sought internships for her TAM students. The percentage of Kohl's interns from NIU who then enter the retailer's executive training program now is above the national average. So is the job acceptance rate of NIU students who interview with the company and the subsequent retention rate.
“We hire 20-plus students from NIU every year, and it's continued to grow year after year. We're excited to see it grow to 40 or 50 every year,” McClement said. “We like to show students who Kohl's is – we're the fastest-growing retailer in the United States – and we like to bring in the best and brightest.”
Meanwhile, the partnership automatically breeds the next flock of “best and brightest.”
“I learn from these projects every day,” Hillery said. “I learn about all the trends, which is stuff I can come back with next year. I learn from the Kohl's evaluations: Are these ideas applicable to what Kohl's can use? This industry changes so fast that you need to know these things or you're left behind.”
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