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Human Resources Retail Learning

But what if we do nothing? An interview with the head of Australasia’s retail degree

3 min read

Many people in the industry agree that retail has its own unique challenges from other industries – set apart by its customer centricity, rapidly changing landscape and prevalence of data. However, Australia is yet to create its own retail degree, with many students heading across the ditch to fulfil their needs. At the RLC, we’re passionate about supporting future retail leaders, so we had a chat with Jonathan Elms, who heads up Massey University’s Retail Bachelor Programme in New Zealand and their industry collaboration.  

The current status quo for retail careers 

Currently there’s nothing really in terms of a formal qualification in Australia for retail. Massey’s programme is one of two in the Asia Pacific region: Massey’s degree is a Bachelor of Retail and Business Management and the University of Stirling’s Retail Marketing Honours degree in Singapore. Many Australians wishing to study for a retail degree are studying online as the tertiary landscape here catches up. Massey’s Retail degree was established in 2014 and is seeing the first round of students graduate this year. 

Massey are hoping to work with Australian tertiary providers to support the development of the retail industry with retail management and strategic issues with big data, design thinking, customer experience and strategic thinking. This lays the foundation to future-proof the industry.  

The knowledge gap in the sector 

New Zealand and Australia are experiencing a talent shortage to cope with the rapid change that is changing the face of retail. Large retailers are having to import talent from the likes of the US and the UK, who have more developed programmes. As Elms points out, we should be doing more for our local talent and enhancing our local talent. 

Current business programmes create a foundation for retail business leaders, but as the industry is so dynamic, it needs another layer of thinking. This strategic decision making is what Massey is aiming to fill to enable future retail leaders to keep up with the rapid pace of change – change being perhaps the only constant thing in the industry. 

The perception of retail as a career 

As referred to in an earlier article on the RLC, the perception of retail particularly with students is that it’s a job to support them during their study, rather than a solid career opportunity. Elms highlights that many Western cultures see retail in its shop-front form with a negative perception of retail as a career. They aren’t exposed to head office and back office roles that aren’t visible to the consumer. Even within the sector, practitioners will refer to themselves as digital marketers or supply chain managers rather than retail experts. Clearly this perception needs to change within the sector to then change external attitudes.  

Changing this perception 

The retail degree is certainly working to influence students in choosing a retail career, highlighting the exciting and lucrative career paths that are in the sector. Part of this is showing their parents that retail is a ‘real career’ which can take their children toward a vocation with a major retailer, or equip them to run their own businesses with the skills developed in the retail degree.  

What are we telling students? 

Equipping students with the skills to succeed in retail prepares them for success in business across the board. The practices and principles in retail are fundamental, Elms describes retail as the sector bringing together different disciplines and providing insight into the future of commerce. “Retail promises, but it also delivers”, he says – “if you explain that to parents, they get it”. Retail is an exciting industry to be part of – it’s ever-changing and never stands still. It’s interesting, intriguing. Retail students are taught to embrace change, future-proof themselves and their thinking. We don’t know what’s going to happen next week, month, or year and the only thing that’s certain is change.  

What if we do nothing? 

There is currently a shortfall of between 200 000 and 300 000 workers in the retail sector in New Zealand required just to keep it afloat at its current rate of employment. In order to grow the industry, we need to fuel this pipeline of talent, upskilling the current workers and building capability into future retail leaders. 

It’s clear that if we do not invest in the sector, then it will stagnate. As Australia’s second largest employer and a large contributor to our GDP, it’s important to invest in the future of the sector. Stay tuned for part two of our discussion with Jonathan, which focuses on the importance of collaboration to drive the learning and growth of the industry. Part two will be made live tomorrow 


About Jonathan

Jonathan Elms is the Sir Stephen Tindall Chair Professor in Retail Management. Jonathan leads Massey University’s Bachelor of Retail and Business Management, NZ’s only retail degree. He is also the Director of the Centre for Advanced Retail Studies (CARS), NZ’s ‘centre of excellence’ for retail research, education and scholarship. 

Jonathan joined Massey in December 2014 after spending seven years at the Institute for Retail Studies (IRS), University of Stirling. At Stirling, Jonathan directed the IRS’ undergraduate retail marketing programmes delivered on campus and in Singapore. 

He holds a BSc (Hons) Marketing, MSc Management, and PhD in Marketing from Lancaster University