Supply chain woes, environmental sustainability, automation, information security, workforce retention and talent recruitment – these are just a handful of the issues facing the retail sector today. To address these and future retail challenges, a $5 million gift from Terry and Tina Lundgren will fuel innovative research and student opportunities in business, retail and consumer sciences at the University of Arizona.
"People often dismiss the importance of retailing, until retail is disrupted," said Laura Scaramella, head of the UArizona John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences. "Think about what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic; what other industry turned so quickly, on a dime, to meet the needs of consumers?"
The gift will establish an endowed faculty chair in both the Eller College of Management and the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences to help meet the industry's demand for graduates who embrace change and spark innovation in retailing companies of all sizes. It also will provide enhanced scholarship opportunities for community college transfer students.
"I had to work full time and go to school full time. I was the only one out of six kids who went to college. I was desperate to figure out how to graduate because I wanted a better life. I wanted more opportunities," Lundgren said. "There are young people in community college in the same exact situation. If we just give them the opportunity, they will exceed everyone's expectations."
Part of the Lundgrens' contribution will be used to create a retail learning laboratory, equipped with the latest in virtual reality technology, eye-tracking and heat-sensing software, cameras, and display hardware to allow students to get hands-on practice in a variety of retailing scenarios.
"Biology students have labs where they can practice their craft and perform experiments to learn about biological processes. Retailing students need to be able to do the exact same thing," Scaramella said. "If students are working on product display, they can actually set up a shop, create virtual product, use different display strategies and then use eye-tracking software to track where people are visually attending."
The retailing laboratory will also allow retail and marketing researchers to study consumer behaviors, perceptions and technological adoption. An urgent demand in the retail sector is contactless point of sale, where a store is equipped with optical scanners, and products carry enhanced barcodes to track the items a consumer walks out with and automatically bill their preferred method of payment or credit card on file, Erickson explained.
"To me, the question is: Are consumers going to adopt something like this? How do we educate consumers about how contactless point of sale works and help consumers overcome their hesitancy to walk out of a store without having physically paid for something or checked out?" Erickson said. "This will genuinely be a lab space where we can do research with real consumers."
In addition, the Lundgrens' contribution will fund collaborative research to identify and address other emerging and future retail challenges. As part of the summit announcement, the newly established Lundgren Retail Collaborative issued an open call for proposals from researchers across scientific disciplines to answer the question: What are the big hurdles retailers and companies should be addressing now to better prepare for the future?
"The goal of the Lundgren Retail Collaborative is to build a world-class hub, right here on the University of Arizona campus, that drives retail education, research and practice," said Yong Liu, marketing department head and Robert A. Eckert Endowed Chair in the Eller College of Management.
Business and consumer science students will play a role in the collaborative's research efforts as well. Each year, students will be encouraged to apply for fellowship opportunities and form teams encompassing any variety of fields of study – such as fashion, fine art, engineering, psychology or information technology – to address the issues facing the retail sector.
Selected student teams will be provided with mentorships, professional development training, and the opportunity to present their solutions to top-level industry professionals as part of the annual Global Retailing Ideas Summits.
"If we're teaching students to really lead innovative change, they need to be able to come up with fresh ideas and learn to work outside of their own discipline," Scaramella said. "Giving students an opportunity to work in interdisciplinary teams now is only going to help them in the future."