UNT's 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, says Richard Last, the center's senior director.
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 says. The center also will include a think tank of industry leaders, he adds.
The new research center will house UNT's Consumer Experiences 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. 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 also will offer competitive grants for research.
In addition to attracting researchers from various academic fields, Last says the new center should 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 says. "We also expect to attract visiting digital executives who want to interact with digital retailing faculty and researchers."
Last, who directs UNT's bachelor's degree program in digital retailing, founded the jcp.com website in 1994 when he was manager of new business development for J.C. Penney Catalog. He also is 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.
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 will result in collaboration between leading academics and industry professionals," Last says.
"We intend to involve researchers from many disciplines, including marketing, logistics, technology and consumer research," he says.
Other retailing research centers at colleges and universities consider digital retailing, which is also known as e-commerce, as a subset of retailing studies. Last says that the digital world has changed the way that retail operates so much that digital retailing is now its own field.
Judith Forney, dean of the College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism, says 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 says. "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."
UNT's center recently held its first Digital Executive Education Program (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 meeting, which was held in March.
UNT became the first university in the U.S. to offer a bachelor's degree in digital retailing when the degree program, then known as electronic merchandising, was established in 1998. The program provides students with understanding of the differences between the merchandising of products on a website or other virtual store using technology, and merchandising products in a brick-and-mortar store. Students develop analytical and computer skills as well as knowledge about merchandising processes, marketing, consumer segments, and website, social media, and other technology design architecture.
In 2010, the degree program became digital retailing, a term created by Shop.org. Enrollment in the program has more than tripled with the new name of the major. Currently, more than 90 students are digital merchandising majors.
Nancy Kolsti with UNT News Service can be reached at Nancy.Kolsti@unt.edu.