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Guide to Education

Retailers stock up on staffing needs

Monday, March 5, 2001

Canada's leading retailers have finally found an issue on which they can not just agree but agree to join forces.

The issue? Supporting the only undergraduate school in this country that grants degrees in retailing -- Ryerson University's School of Retail Management in Toronto.

Hudson's Bay Co., Sears Canada Inc., Loblaw Cos. Ltd. and Wal-Mart have each pledged $1-million toward the school, which opened its doors in September, 1998. At the same time, each has active representatives on the new school's 30-member advisory board.

Why? Part pride and part self-interest, says William Turner, executive vice-president of merchandising and logistics for Sears Canada and chairman of the school's advisory board. Pride because establishing the school underlines that retailing must now be considered a profession.

Self-interest because as Canada's retail sector becomes increasingly more sophisticated and complicated, the country desperately needs to be able to educate its own ranks of middle managers.

"Retail has never been seen by young people as a career," he says. "In fact, it is now one of the most exciting careers anyone could choose. It has been a sort of accidental profession. People didn't set out to be retailers, they just sort of fell into it."

In the past, Canada relied on a combination of in-house, ad hoc training programs and poaching south of the border when it came to filling middle and senior managerial ranks in its retail chains. Today, however, those disjointed efforts simply will not produce the kinds of talent needed, adds George Heller, president of Hudson's Bay.

"In the United States there is something like 80 universities that graduate young men and women in retailing," he says. "In Canada we finally have at least one. The issue was crucial enough that companies which normally are the most intensely competitive in the land agreed to pool assets and respond for the common good."

That response goes far beyond just opening purse strings, says Donna Smith, director of Ryerson's School of Retail Management.

"Whatever we do has to be relevant," she says. "Granted, there has to be the academic framework, but there also has to be a curriculum of specific skills and knowledge that has practical benefits to anyone wanting to make retailing a career."

One of the problems that both the new school and retailers themselves have faced is one of perception. Turner calls it the McDonald's Syndrome.

"I'm not knocking McDonald's," he says. "They are a fine retail chain. The problem is that for many kids, their first experience in the business is working for a chain like McDonald's at minimum wage. That's only one tiny part of the industry but because that is all they have seen close up, it can prejudice them."

Heller agrees, pointing out that Hudson's Bay has 600 people in its information technology department, its own credit card division and a small army of marketers and other professionals.

"Every one is a retailer and managing them requires specific skills," he says.

"If we didn't have medical schools, where would we turn for doctors," Turner adds. "It's the same with professional retailers."

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