The University of North Texas College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism is now home to a new center that will provide professionals in the retail, hospitality management, technology and other industries focused on investment in digital retailing with research and expertise from UNT faculty and industry leaders. The global Digital Retailing Research Center is the first interdisciplinary center in the U.S. with a complete focus on digital retailing, said Richard Last, the center’s senior director.
Last, who directs the bachelor’s degree program in digital retailing in the college, founded the jcp.com website in 1994 when he was manager of new business development for J.C. Penney Catalog. He is also chairman emeritus and a current member of the board for Shop.org, the world’s largest industry association devoted to digital retailing and part of the National Retail Federation.
Texas A&M University’s Center for Retailing Studies, the Center for Retailing Excellence in the University of Arkansas’ Walton College and other retailing research centers at colleges and universities have considered digital retailing, which is also known as e-commerce, as a subset of retailing studies. Last pointed out, however, that the digital world “has changed the way that retail operates so much that digital retailing is now its own field.”
As the first center in the U.S. focusing only on digital retailing, UNT’s new center “will address issues and problems facing digital and multichannel retailing, and result in collaboration between leading academics and industry professionals,” Last said.
“We intend to involve researchers from many disciplines, including marketing, logistics, technology and consumer research,” he said.
Judith Forney, dean of the College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism, said that during the past 20 years, “the evolution of e-commerce and the Internet has led to a revolution much like the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.”
“The difference in the digital revolution is its speed of change, global impact and the unprecedented economic and social power of consumers in the marketplace,” she said. “In this current state of rapid change, academia and industry have a symbiotic relationship because we need each other. Our industry partners need to have graduates of our programs with analytical skills, who can see the big picture of digital retailing, look at possible problems and find solutions through research.”
The center will be funded by business leaders who will pay for one of several different levels of memberships. Those who pay the top membership level will form the center’s advisory board, Last said. The center will also include a think tank of industry leaders, he said.
UNT’s Consumer Experience in Digital Environments research cluster, in which faculty members focus on digital knowledge and analytics, networked information and retrieval, international retailing, consumer behavior and other topics, will be housed in the global Digital Retailing Research Center. Researchers will test websites, social media, shopping applications for smartphones and tablets, and other technology, with the research funded by center members and retailers who will pay for the services. The center will also offer competitive grants for research.
In addition to attracting researchers from various academic fields, Last said the new center should also attract faculty members from other universities and retailing research centers.
“It will be a location for visiting faculty members, and we may accept research proposals from them for collaboration with UNT faculty,” he said. “We also expect to attract visiting digital executives who want to interact with digital retailing faculty and researchers.”
The center recently held its first Digital Executive Education Program, or DEEP, which is designed for professionals who need to broaden their understanding of digital retailing for their companies and prepare for career growth. Seven executives from Brazil and the U.S. and two UNT students who are earning master’s degrees in merchandising attended the first DEEP March 18-22.
The center staff will also organize a new Executive + Scholar Lecture Series during the fall semester and will now manage the Consumer Experience Symposium during the spring semester, which was previously organized by the college. Both events focus on digital retailing topics.