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Fashion merchandising students who attended the National Retail Federation's Student Program in Chicago this past fall. Front row (from L to R): Elana Katz, Jessica Burke, Kellie Raddatz, Martina Rogers and Lauren Avampato. Back Row (from L to R): Ashley Lieurance, Amanda Mast, Ciara Isley, Virginia Dorn, Samantha Underwood, Karla Susnjar, Fernanda Polanco, Krystle Perryman and Ashley Frieson.
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Fashion Merchandising Students, Faculty Get Inside-Industry Insight at Natl. Retail Federation Student Program

December 3, 2013

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MACOMB, IL – It's that time of the year. The annual holiday shopping season—for those who work in retail—is the time when much of the annual planning and merchandising are put to the test. For some retail companies, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF), the holiday season can account for as much as 20-40 percent of annual sales. And for those who work in retail, the NRF is not only a source for that kind of data, which retail companies use to develop product and marketing plans, but it's also an organization that provides support for those working in retail and those who aspire to work in the industry.

This fall that support was demonstrated to faculty and students in Western's fashion merchandising program. In September, Ellen Davis, the senior vice president of the NRF and the executive director of the NRF Foundation, invited a select number of colleges and universities to attend the NRF's inaugural Student Program September 30 in Chicago. In late summer, Davis (a native of Galesburg who was familiar with Western's fashion merchandising program) reached out to Mary Mhango, chair of the Western Illinois University Department of Dietetics, Fashion Merchandising and Hospitality (DFMH), via email. Davis' message included information about the program, which was designed "to show college students the career opportunities in retail," and a helpful offer—a $2,500 travel scholarship to help cover the cost of transportation to McCormick Place.

"Our Student Program was created to help students understand what careers are in demand in the e-commerce and digital retail industry and provide opportunities to network with companies hiring for internships and entry-level positions," Davis said her in message.

"It wasn't easy, but I was able to get us up there, all 15 of us, get us hotel rooms for a night, all on that budget, so students didn't have to pay for transportation or lodging," noted Shanna Bruer, instructor in the DFMH department. "But all of it was definitely worth it, not only for the students, but also for the future of our fashion merchandising program."

For Bruer, the NRF Student Program provided her with a way to make connections with retailers for her interest in getting Western's fashion merchandising students involved with industry research projects. For the students, it provided them with invaluable job-recruiter and inside-industry perspectives firsthand.

"Several of the speakers and presenters at the Student Program were high-level retail executives—CEOs, presidents, vice presidents. They provided insight into their career paths, as well as trends they thought were emerging in the industry," Bruer explained. "It was a phenomenal experience for our students, not only for the up-close interaction they had with the retailers, but it was also great for them to see and hear from other students what their internship programs were like, what their experiences were like so far preparing for a career in retail and fashion merchandising. There were students from places as far away as California, North Carolina, Texas and Florida—it was a hugely diverse group. I think it opened our students' eyes to see who the competition is, whose résumés will be side by side with theirs when they finish their fashion merchandising programs at Western and are looking to get jobs in the industry."

For senior Martina Rodgers, information from the NRF Student Program she took especially to heart had to do with career advice.

"The most unexpected thing I got while attending the NRF Student Program was all of the critical advice given. Vicky Cantrell, one of the speakers, said, 'Reputation is important,' meaning that reputation is all you have in the retail business and it can get you far… or nowhere. Ms. Cantrell went on to explain how she built a good reputation in her career and how that resulted in her not even having to apply for certain positions," Rodgers explained. "I also received invaluable one-on-one time with retail recruiters from such companies as Ann Taylor Loft, Saks Inc., Nordstrom, Uncommon Goods, Macy's and the Home Shopping Network."

Elana Katz, also a senior, noted that one-on-one time was also a key benefit for her.

"Getting that time to speak face to face with reps from huge companies is not an opportunity that most people our age get," Katz noted. "It was great to have that chance to ask them anything we wanted, give them our résumés and form personal connections, which we might not get outside of this opportunity. Plus, it was just good networking practice, in general."

The initial experience was so good that Bruer hopes students and faculty can attend the NRF Student Program next year. She said if faculty and staff in the department can figure out a way to fund it, they would indeed like to take students again.

"I spoke with about eight to 10 recruiters who were there promoting their internship programs and provided me with information about how our students could become involved in those," she said. "Even the long van ride to McCormick Place was a great opportunity, because I spent 10 hours in the car with the students, and I got to hear about what they see in their futures and what they want from their studies in our program. Then, on the drive home… oh my gosh! The students were talking about how much they learned or what they felt they needed to yet learn, such as about multi-channel retailing and the importance of the e-commerce side of the industry. I think it was a great learning experience for everyone involved."

Posted By: Teresa Koltzenburg (
Office of University Relations