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George Mason University To Tackle Retail Industry Disruption With New Center

The retail industry was already facing dramatic disruptions before the coronavirus pandemic devastated the industry, and a new academic institution hopes to help small and midsized retailers survive. 

George Mason University's Fairfax, Virginia, campus.

George Mason University's School of Business has launched the Center for Retail Transformation, aimed at providing research, events and a talent pipeline to the struggling industry, the school announced last week.

The center will be led by Gautham Vadakkepatt, who has spent the last decade in academia focused on marketing and has advised retailers on business strategy. He is putting together an advisory board of 30 retail industry professionals to guide the center. 

"We started talking about the center before COVID, but definitely COVID has accelerated the need of a center such as this, focused on small- and medium-sized retailers," Vadakkepatt said. "They are struggling. The hope is this institution can help in some way."

The center currently offers one class, an undergraduate course on retail management. It plans to roll out several additional classes for undergraduate and graduate students to study various aspects of retail in hopes of creating a pipeline of young professionals who are knowledgeable about the industry. 

It also plans to host conferences, workshops and executive training programs to convene retail leaders and experts to discuss the challenges the industry faces. And it will conduct research that it hopes will help retail executives make decisions about their businesses. 

"We're hoping to build a mutually beneficial, collaborative ecosystem here that provides a workforce-ready talent pool as well as cutting-edge research for the retail space," Vadakkepatt said. 

Gautham Vadakkepatt, the director of George Mason University's Center for Retail Transformation.

Vadakkepatt sees a host of challenges with the retail industry that he wants the center to address. 

He thinks legacy retailers have been too slow in adapting to the way e-commerce has changed consumer behavior and that many of the bankruptcies in the sector could have been avoided if retailers had pursued a better strategy. 

"Now with the advent of the internet, finding the product is not the issue, so what is valuable to the customer has changed," he said. "The retailers have been mostly reactive, especially some of the legacy retailers, hence the bankruptcies."

He said the pain that many retail companies have faced has been a result of overextending their real estate footprint. 

"The number of stores is too much, and the sizes of stores is perhaps too large," he said. "Retailers could absolutely avoid some of these things by retaining the focus on evolving customer needs and rightsizing themselves."

The pandemic has exacerbated many of the difficulties retail faced before this year, pushing more people to order products online and discouraging activities that bring them together.

Vadakkepatt said he thinks the pandemic will have long-term effects, such as accelerating the shift to e-commerce and forcing retailers to change their business model. He also said it had a silver lining in that it made retailers more willing to experiment with new concepts, spurring innovation in the industry. 

"Necessity is the mother of invention," he said. "COVID has provided them a license to experiment and to fail without being concerned about failure. There is a lot of bankruptcies and carnage in the retail space now, but you've also seen all these retailers thinking outside the box and trying to stretch it under very difficult and trying circumstances."