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Classes Step into Retail Settings

June 9, 2016

The Student to Business Initiative offers small businesses the opportunity to work with students and reap big results.

The Student to Business Initiative (SBI), a collaborative effort between the Center for Economic Development and the Labovitz School of Business and Economics (LSBE), offers small businesses the opportunity to work with students on specific business issues, such as producing a marketing plan, gaining insight into accounting strategies, or enhancing retail initiatives.  

SBI, therefore, strengthens the relationship between our community’s small businesses and LSBE through experiential learning opportunities that fit community needs. 

Rajiv Vaidyanathan, LSBE Marketing Professor and Department Chair, feels that SBI is a perfect combination of practical application and classroom lessons on theory for his Consumer Behavior classes—the most recent program added to the SBI offerings. 

He found that even good students who demonstrated through exams that they were excelling at learning consumer behavior principles were unable to apply their knowledge to a business when asked.

“I decided I needed to put more effort into helping students apply their knowledge,” he said. By using the SBI program, I felt that not only would the students retain the material better (because it was now not something to learn for an exam, but something they had to relate to the business world) but they also worked harder and found the theory more interesting and engaging.”

The two Consumer Behavior classes, which encompasses 80 students total, have broken into working groups with each group providing assistance to one of the ten currently participating businesses.

These groups of four students are charged with providing recommendations for the business’s retail environment.  Over the 10-week class, the group must work closely with the business to understand its target market, conduct secondary research, and spend several hours of customer observation in the actual retail setting.

Tami LaPole Edmunds, was one of the current business owners using the SBI students. Her store, Art in the Alley, with locations downtown and in the Miller Hill Mall, offers one-of-a-kind, artisan-made, women’s clothing and jewelry along with fun inspirational home accessories.   Through her SBI participation, Edmunds hoped to obtain tangible methods for utilizing the student findings to increase traffic and sales.

“I am interested in their findings as I continually look to obtain information to grow my business,” said Edmunds. “Consumer behavior is a critical piece to this continued growth. I have not done this research yet, but I understand how important it is for growth. Plus, I’m hoping to be able to mentor students along the process.” 

 “It’s really exciting to work so close with a small business’s marketing and management people to see what they value and what their short-term/long-term goals are, said Kelsey Schultze, a junior majoring in Retail Marketing Analytics whose group assisted Zeitgeist Arts in Downtown Duluth. 

The final report of recommendations presented to the business also included the analysis and observations.

These outcomes are the “aha moments” the students needed.  “The SBI program improves not only their understanding of the theory underlying consumer behavior,” said Vaidyanathan, “but also their ability to deal with ambiguity, to analyze a business situation, and to see how the topics covered in class all link and interact in ways that sometimes affect businesses in different ways.”

Senior Marketing Analytics major, Ben Kocer, said “The most exciting thing about the SBI program is the ability to apply what I’m learning in class to real life business situations. When our team met as a group, the ideas we came up with were fantastic and helped us realize what we were learning can make a big impact.” His group assisted Snyder Drug Store in the downtown’s Holiday Center.

Furthermore, the students are understanding how to manage time and professional interactions along with group dynamics and teamwork. These are all soft skills that businesses say are fundamental abilities they look for with new hires. 

 “This is a phenomenal program that encourages students to test themselves, and it helps them develop truly marketable skills to use in their career,” said Kocer. 

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