By  on October 7, 2009

PHILADELPHIA — Despite a year of lackluster sales at retail and projected cutbacks on seasonal sales help in stores, it’s not all doom and gloom out there: Stores are hiring.

That’s what a panel of retail executives and recruiters told 70 undergraduates and MBA students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, who are considering a career in retail after graduation.

“It’s not the Nineties,” said Robert Kerson of Kerson Partners, an executive search firm based in New York. “This is still a tough time, but it’s getting better. Companies have slowed their hiring, but there is a lot of pent-up demand,” he added. Kerson served as moderator for the event, which was titled “The ABC’s of Retail Recruiting.”

The panel — which included William P. Baer, senior vice president of human resources and labor relations for Bloomingdale’s; Karen Rosenbach, partner at K & J executive search in New York, and Wharton alum Steven Silverstein, president and chief executive officer of Spencer’s, the gift retailer — schooled the students on everything from how to land a retail job to newer opportunities in the field and the perks of the career.

“As a buyer, you can be responsible for a $30 million business at an early age,” explained Kerson, something that is appealing to many business school grads. “And, there are more younger ceo’s in retail than in any other industry. As I look around this room, I can bet there will be about six to eight future retail ceo’s.”

Rosenbach feels the pace of hiring is picking up, and more business school grads are giving retail a serious look.

While she doesn’t hire many entry-level positions, the changes Rosenbach has seen at the executive level of late may have a trickle-down effect that is positive for grads.

Baer said Bloomingdale’s started a program specifically for business school graduates three years ago. During that time, one Wharton MBA, three graduates of the Wharton School’s undergraduate program and two graduates from Penn’s College of Arts & Sciences have joined Bloomingdale’s.

“We definitely plan to hire undergraduates and MBAs for our Merchant Training Program at Bloomingdale’s this coming year. We expect our number of trainee hires to be closer to our 2008 levels than the slightly reduced number in 2009. We continue to place a very strong emphasis on our training program and see this as an opportunity to grow top talent,” said Baer.

With retailing no longer the afterthought career, there are some students who choose Wharton because there are no other MBA programs with a retail minor. “In years past, 90 percent of our grads went into finance or consulting,” said Erin Armendinger, managing director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Initiative at Wharton. The $10 million gift to the school from Baker, a Wharton alum and former president of Kohl’s Corp., was to expand the retailing curriculum and research and promote faculty and student interaction with industry experts. Armendinger said the September career fair included representatives from wholesalers, retailers, manufacturers and consumer packaged goods companies.

“We generally get 40 to 50 undergrads and grads placed in retail a year. Last year that was down 20 percent from the year before. Normally there is an inverse relationship between retail and Wall Street — retail did well when Wall Street didn’t — but it was bad across the board last year. It is still early, but I think hiring will be better than last year.”

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