RETAIL management is a serious study, as Geoffrey da Silva, marketing lecturer at the Singapore Management University's (SMU) Lee Kong Chian School of Business, would like you to believe.
Speaking at the Q1 2015 Customer Satisfaction Index of Singapore (CSISG) results briefing last month, Mr da Silva said that the retailing curriculum - which has been in place here for over 30 years now - has gained prominence due to major changes in consumer buying behaviour, increased leisure and travel, the impact of technology (principally online shopping) and the globalisation of marketing.
Customers, for instance, are seeking better quality at value prices, more customisation by brands and personable relationships where they can find the "retailer's face" in their purchases so that they feel important and that someone is listening to their unique needs.
"Collectively, these have resulted in the importance of paying particular attention to the design and delivery of unique retail experiences," said Mr da Silva, who is also associate director of talent development for the LVMH-SMU Brand Initiative.
Retail management, according to him, is the study of the processes and concepts that underpin the management and strategy of retail entities, be they a standalone store, retail chain or mall. The curriculum entails marketing, finance, human resource management, operations and supply chain management.
"Students who sign up for our retail management courses already have a specific area of interest prior to studying the subject. Many of them are pursuing a study in entrepreneurship so retail management is a natural fit. Others have 'outside school' interests and passion in say fashion, design or food and beverage so taking this course is a natural choice as it augments their skills in starting a retail business when they graduate," said Mr da Silva.
To inspire them, "retail heroes" are necessary as they will serve as business role models to the students, he said, referring to "champions" who have carved a name for themselves in the retail scene, such as Malaysia's Jimmy Choo, Singapore's Charles and Keith Wong and Jannie Chan of Hourglass.
"We need to also track the new heroes, particularly university business graduates who have made a name for themselves by achieving early leadership positions in major retailers and malls, as well as winners at the SRA Retail Awards," said Mr da Silva.
Launched in 2000, the SRA Retail Awards are presented by the Singapore Retailers Association (SRA) and supported by Spring Singapore and the Singapore Tourism Board. They aim to raise the standards and profile of the retail industry in Singapore; recent awardees include VivoCity for outstanding efforts in advertising and promotions; Kenneth Lee of Guardian Health & Beauty for Manager of the Year; and Paragon for outstanding efforts in centre management.
Said a SRA spokesman: "Among the strengths of Singapore retailers are strategy, management, marketing and product sourcing. But going forward, it is the globalisation of retail and the online challenge that they will have to grasp and seek to benefit from in the future."
Productivity and customer service can be further improved too, he noted. To boost customer service, the retailer has to first identify its niche customers. If, for instance, majority of its customers are Mandarin-speaking, the retailer should look at training its staff to be proficient in Mandarin.
When asked if SRA believes retail management can be taught, the SRA spokesman said: "Yes, retail management is teachable. It is, in fact, a combination of art and science. It is an art when it comes to visual merchandising display, which uses sight, sense and colour to entice customers to make a purchase, and a science as it involves looking at the hard numbers, such as gross margin return on investment, gross margin return on footage and other measurements of productivity."
At present, schools and agencies that offer retail management education include SMU, SRA, the Singapore Institute of Retail Studies (a Continuing Education and Training institute of Nanyang Polytechnic), Kaplan, Raffles Merchandising Institute and Temasek Polytechnic.
Even as retail management education is important, being able to apply the syllabus to the real-world is just as critical, said the SRA spokesman. "Learners must be able to use it in his or her workplace. They will also have to adapt to different environments and use what they learn to grow the business."
With the retail industry changing rapidly, retailers need to be on their toes and adapt to the evolving environment, he continued. "A combination of education and practical work will go a long way in differentiating them from the competition."