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Q&A: Bart Weitz, director emeritus of University of Florida's Miller Center for Retailing Education

At 68, Bart Weitz this month became director emeritus of the Miller Center for Retailing Education and Research he founded at the University of Florida 24 years ago.

Financed by 31 big retailers including JCPenney, Macy's, Target, Sears and Office Depot, it's grown into one of the largest college retailing programs, with 500 business students, 150 of them placed annually in retail-related internships.

With an engineering degree from MIT and a doctorate in marketing from Stanford, Weitz taught at Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania's business school, before UF recruited him as one of its first handful of eminent scholars. He has never held a retailing job. Nonetheless, he is working with co-author Michael Levy on their eighth edition of Retailing Management, the top-selling textbook on the industry, and plans to keep lecturing.

Recently cited for lifetime achievement by the American Marketing Association, he talked recently with the Times.

Is retailing earning respect from business schools?

Retailing has not had a good reputation. Students come in with the attitude it's all minimum-wage jobs. To get their attention, I use a quiz with questions like how much does the 32-year-old manager of a Walmart discount store in Gainesville make. I used $100,000 as the answer until the actual Walmart manager suggested I should bump it up a couple notches.

When I got here, most faculty found theoretical research more interesting and worried the school would lose its academic purity with an applied science like retailing. It's not as sexy as developing the next microchip. That's changed because the industry has grown so big.

Data mining analysis opened doors to retailer supply problems that used to be manufacturer problems. It takes more sophisticated managers to handle today's HR challenges, managing the bottom end of a labor force that is far more diverse and deals in multiple languages.

The notion of working your way up from a 16-year-old part-timer on the sales floor won't cut it anymore. Wharton has a great program, but all the students want to go to Wall Street. The only other programs our size are the University of Arizona and Texas A&M.

How did you shift from aerospace engineer at Lockheed to an academic career?

After testing instruments for guided missiles in a quality assurance lab, I realized I wanted to work with people more. I got into business-to-business sales. Then a car accident left me a paraplegic, and at 31, I needed an occupation more mental than physical that didn't require as much travel.

That must have been unimaginably difficult.

I pulled in front of an emergency vehicle I never saw or heard. I don't remember a thing about the accident or the first few weeks at the hospital. Rehab took three months. I just tried to view it as a challenge, sort of like learning how to ski. I had a lot of great help. They made me realize I had to be able to take care of myself.

You've taught Generation Y students, generally defined as 16 to 27. How do they compare with other generations?

Their values are very similar to baby boomers'. They want the finer things but are more concerned about quality of life. They are more willing to trade off career for family needs than boomers. To some extent they are not as motivated, but once out in the workplace, they really rise to the occasion.

They are quite good at motivating people very different than they are. What one retail executive told me holds true: Ask a boomer to run through a wall and he will. Gen Y will, too, once you explain why they should and they feel they were part of the decision.

What are their biggest misperceptions?

They think 30 percent or more of retail sales are on the Internet. It's less than 8 percent. I'm surprised how they do not mind handing over their own private information. I don't know if it's naivete, but they see real value in a website knowing all about you. They are more interested in social responsibility, but not as vehement about it as boomers.

People used to think marketing was about tricking people to buy what they don't need. These kids are smart enough to realize it's just part of the game of life. We talk a lot about ethics, and in one class exercise, what they can do to win an account. It's troubling, but I hear more say they would be willing to pay a bribe.

In this age of cyber shopping and mobile commerce, do stores have a future?

I think so. There are enough people who like to shop in a store. Even young kids see it as a social experience. The growth of online retail is decelerating. Instead what's emerged is people use the Internet to gather price and product information, so it complements the store.

You'll see supermarkets soon where you order online and pick up the groceries at a store drive-through. You'll see more stores get into "tell me how to do it" and add services like Best Buy and Apple. PetSmart is fabulous. You can adopt a pet there, get it trained and groomed and see a vet right in the store.

With buying health insurance becoming a complex mystery, BlueCross BlueShield of Florida now sells coverage from stores with child care (there is one in Tampa). They once even worked on putting a kiosk in dollar stores so a low-income customer could buy health coverage with no exam one month at a time on a credit card.

Obamacare will change many things. For instance, many retail executives tell me they probably will pay the penalty rather than continue contributing to employee health plans.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Q&A: Bart Weitz, director emeritus of University of Florida's Miller Center for Retailing Education 07/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 23, 2010 9:14pm]
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