MBAs in Retail Management: Adapting to the E-commerce Revolution

The advent of online retail has kicked off a jobs boom at companies like Amazon in the US and Alibaba in China. How are business schools responding?

Dima Tabbaa was an auditor with Deloitte in Syria during the civil war, poring over companies’ accounts whilst under constant threat from missile strikes. Now she’s head of consumer gift cards for Amazon in Germany — one of a growing number of roles created because of the online retail revolution. 

An MBA from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School got her here. Tabbaa graduated from the one-year MBA in 2017, armed with newfound knowledge and skills in finance, strategy and entrepreneurship. 

“You need everything to succeed in retail, and an MBA gives you that,” she says. “My job at Amazon is like running a mini startup — I’m responsible for the technology, relationship management, the brand, warehouses, the last mile delivery.” 

The retail industry: underserved by MBA programs

But the retail industry is underserved by business schools. Which is surprising when you consider its significance to the global economy and the fact that it is a huge source of job growth for MBAs. 

Scant schools offer specialized MBA courses in retail or consumer goods industry management, preferring instead to impart knowledge through short electives, student-run clubs and consultancy projects with the industry.  

This has not necessarily been a problem, since most of the skills and knowledge delivered in an MBA, such as finance, strategy and marketing are applicable to retail and consumer goods companies, points out Gareth Howells, executive director of MBAs at London Business School.

But as these businesses are disrupted by digital technology and artificial intelligence, business schools know they must update their syllabus to remain a relevant source of talent for retailers. Schools are an important source — up to a quarter of MBAs at institutions such as Wisconsin School of Business and the Krannert School of Management work in retail on graduation. 

And just as many also work for e-commerce companies like Amazon in the US or Alibaba in China.  

Technology has disrupted and reshaped retail, offering a way for consumers to conveniently shop online via online marketplaces, or through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Brick and mortar retailers are also bringing technology into their stores to provide a unique experience and compete with the online players. 

This has changed the skill sets required at the corporate level, with managers having to get to grips with artificial intelligence and data analytics, to aid decision making and improve the customer experience. 

The catalyst for tech adoption has been flat economic growth and consequently, subdued consumer spending. Retailers need to use tech to steal market share from rivals in order to grow. 

How MBA programs are adapting to today’s retail environment

The most successful business schools have retained their value to these retailers by teaching skills for a fast-evolving industry. For LBS, this has meant developing new core and elective MBA courses in subjects such as digital strategy, business analytics and computer programming, says Howells. 

The business school has also invested heavily in experiential learning, he says — structured consulting projects where students apply what they have learned in a real-time environment, and where employers can experience the value of having MBAs work in their company. 

One example is the school’s Luxury Management program with Walpole, which represents more than 250 top UK luxury brands. The program aims to nurture a select group of MBA students to become the next generation of luxury leaders, through consulting projects and mentorship from such prestigious brands as Bentley Motors and Diageo. 

For many business schools, the arrival of digital retail has kicked off a jobs boom. Amazon alone is a top recruiter at most leading schools, for example, and snaps up some 1,000 MBA graduates each year.  

“With the advent of big data, we find that the more sophisticated retailers, for example Walmart, Amazon, Target and many pure play retailers find great value in MBAs,” says Jonlee Andrews, director of the MBA Consumer Marketing Academy (CMA) at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. 

The CMA works with MBA students who are interested in brand management or retailing. It puts on a career-focused program that covers e-commerce and digital technology, for example through guest speakers and projects that give students hands-on exposure to these areas. 

The Kelley school also offers a specialized course called Consumer Channels Management that looks at the financial, competitive and technological aspects of retailing, and helps students understand retailer motivation. 

[See all MBA programs in Retail and Consumer Goods]

About 16 percent of the business school’s MBA students from the 2018 class overall went into the consumer goods industry, the second highest proportion behind consulting. Andrews adds that students are especially valued for their prowess in supply chain management, human resources, marketing and finance. 

Not all retailers are keen to hire expensive MBA graduates, however. Andrews warns that some brick and mortar retailers do not recognize the value an MBA can bring to their business and are not prepared to pay their typically lavish salaries — in Kelley’s case the average pay across the sector was $107,500. This high pay reflects the broad experience of MBAs and the degree’s high costs. 

“MBA-level job prospects are very good at more sophisticated retailers, but practically non-existent elsewhere in the industry,” says Andrews. “But the fact is: the pay at retail companies that do hire MBAs is very good,” she adds. 

Landing a post-MBA job at Amazon

Tabbaa at Amazon advises MBA candidates to display some of the e-retailer’s leadership principles to land a job — they include showing ownership and thinking big. “You need to give stories and share past experiences. This is the base for how candidates are hired at Amazon,” she says. 

In her interviews for her current job, Tabbaa spoke about overcoming challenges in her audit job in Syria: electricity blackouts and fuel shortages were among the daily struggles. 

“I chose to invest in my future, get up every day and go to work in the middle of war,” says Tabbaa. “It taught me that humans can be incredibly strong.”

This determination helps in her job at a company trying to disrupt not just retail but many other consumer businesses. “At Amazon, you’re at the forefront of change,” she says. 

[See the Top 10 MBA Programs for Retail and Consumer Goods]

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