For most college students, the only thing on the line during final exams is a grade.
However, for one class in the Northern Illinois University College of Business, there was also a chance to earn thousands of dollars in scholarship money.
For their final exam, teams of students in Marketing Professor Mark Rosenbaum’s Principles of Retailing class had to make 15-minute presentations to executives from Chicago-area Kohl’s stores. The assignment: help the retailing giant find ways to increase their appeal to “Millennials” – people currently between the ages of 18 and 24. Up for grabs was $3,500 in scholarship money, $2,500 to the winning team and $1,000 to the second place team.
“I don’t believe in memorization and I hate multiple choice exams,” Rosenbaum said of the unusual test, which was intended to teach lessons that went beyond the textbook. “The NIU College of Business prides itself on being ‘Where the classroom meets the business world,’ and this was a perfect example. This was a real life project that brought retailing to the classroom.”
Students worked on the project throughout the semester and had to provide evidence that their idea could work. Several teams conducted surveys of up to 300 individuals to demonstrate the appeal of their plan, while others pointed to existing research to support their claims. “There had to be evidence that these ideas would work with the 18-24 year old crowd,” said Rosenbaum.
The teams’ pitches incorporated the latest in presentation software, videotaped interviews and patter that had been honed in a series of rehearsals. It was a lot of work, but worth it, prize money or not, according to students.
“It’s the first thing I will bring up in a job interview,” said senior marketing major Alex Munoz who was a member of the winning team, but who will miss out on the scholarship money because he graduated days after the victory. “You might forget a lecture, but you’re not going to forget the work you did on a project like this,” he added.
Munoz and his teammates – Ryan McDuffa, a senior marketing major from Winnebago, Ill., and Matthew Jones, a senior marketing major from Hinsdale, Ill., and Abby Fransen, a student in NIU’s School of Family, Consumer and Nutrition Sciences – proposed that Kohl’s develop a cell phone application that would allow customers to place orders by phone, and pick them up hours later. The app also incorporated purchase histories, merchandise recommendations, shareable wish lists and special offers available by scanning QR codes. Another key facet was the creation of small storefront centers in urban areas, where Kohl’s does not currently have many stores, where customers could pick up purchases made online.
“The presentations were very exciting, very intuitive to where we are going in the future,” said Kohl’s regional vice president Nick Vanella, who said the ideas will be receive serious consideration. Kohl’s has similar relationships with other universities and past programs generated some ideas that were implemented as part of a “green” initiative at the company.
While only two proposals took home scholarship money (the second place award went to a team that suggested an interactive fashion blog written by Kohl’s celebrity spokespersons) all of the proposed ideas were worthwhile, said Rosenbaum. Other competing proposals were:
- A line of ultra-customizable clothing that would allow customers to order specific items altered and augmented to their personal tastes
- An online store offering complete outfits for under $100
- An overhaul of the Kohl’s website color scheme to make it more appealing.