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Hacking Retail

Unusual hackathon taps retail executives to build the perfect course

These days, when customers want to buy a dress from Macy’s, they are likely to turn to and then load into the car for a trip to the mall, or even get the product delivered that same day to their home. That means students of retail marketing need to be just as conversant in customer behavior as they shop across channels as they are with tried-and-true in-store marketing tools like impulse selling. They need to be masters of data analysis as well – to learn how to find a customer whose online behavior indicates she’s in the market for a dress in the first place, and if she wants it the same day, help her locate the inventory.

This convergence of online marketing and retailing, offline and online retailing, was one of the key lessons to emerge from an unusual gathering hosted by the Retail Management Institute recently. Dubbed a “Retail/eCommerce Hackathon," the April 16 event was designed to tap the expertise of area retail executives, to help create the ideal university-level course for next-generation retail leaders.

Retail powerhouses like Kent Anderson, president of, and Pat Connolly, chief marketing officer of Williams Sonoma, spent the afternoon brainstorming and sketching out a next-generation curriculum that would best position tomorrow’s retail student for success.

After listening to a talk on the direction of the retail industry by Anderson and Connolly, the executives gathered into groups. Like traditional hackathons, the participants were given an in-the-moment assignment to work on during the event: Specifically, they were asked to identify the skills and talents that are vital in retail employees, but which are most often lacking in new hires, especially in the areas of technology and social media.
A big theme of the day was data, said Kirthi Kalyanam,  director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University, and the organizer of the day’s event. The participants stressed that while retailing has always been a data-driven industry, today's challenge is to use large amounts of data to improve the customer experience and generate marketing insights in real time.

“The executives noted that the shortage of talent that has these data skills is very, very real,” said Kalyanam. “It’s especially crucial given an accelerating trend of global e-commerce players, such as the Chinese giant Ali Baba, entering the U.S. market.”

For students, that means they need a curriculum that is heavier than ever on multi-channel marketing skills, promotion, and being smart about big data, he said.

Another theme was the blurring of lines between what happens offline – in retail stores – and what happens online. “With services like Google Express turning even your corner Target into an online-purchasing environment, there is no turning back the clock on online-offline convergence,” said Kalyanam.

Some retailers are using that data to show that consumers use different channels for different things. “The word omni-channel (all channels are equal) is in high fashion in the retail industry, but several leading retailers are finding far more nuances among their consumers,” said Kalyanam.

The participants – including officials from Google, Mattel, BuildDirect, Adobe, Shoprunner, and Twitter – will come together again to review progress towards a new curriculum, and to continue to expand the set of ideas.

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