Sydney Schutkowski admits to being a bit nervous when she walked into the San Diego Convention Center with her Arizona State University classmates nearly one year ago, anxious but ready to present to a panel of food industry professionals.
Schutkowski, who earned a food industry and marketing certificate along with a dual BS in supply chain management and marketing in 2019, and the three other students had practiced the roughly 30-minute offering several times in their hotel room and again inside the convention site. They felt good about their chances.
At stake was the top prize in the annual National Grocers Association (NGA) Case Study Competition, which asks teams of students seeking degrees in the food and retail industries nationwide to solve a real-world issue confronting today’s independent grocer.
The students won the first day and made it to the second round before bowing out. But the lessons, they say, still linger.
“The competition and being in the class helped me in more ways than I originally thought,” said Schutkowski, a business development representative for fresh global produce supplier the Oppenheimer Group in Chicago. “It gave me a better understanding of the grocery retail landscape and an appreciation of retailers' differences.
“It also helped me better deal with people online and in person. That’s something I do every day now."
One of the main goals of the class "Current Topics in Food Retail," an online, for-credit course taught by Associate Professor Renee Shaw Hughner through the Morrison School of Agribusiness at the W. P. Carey School of Business, is to open students' eyes to a possible career in the food world after graduation.
Each year, a handful of ASU undergraduate students tackle a hot topic posed to them by the NGA, working together online to get their collective arms around a particular case question. The students get an opportunity to query independent grocers in a live webinar, as well. Then they compile all the research and information and devise possible solutions for the retailers to implement.
The final exam, in essence, comes at the annual convention, when the ASU students step into a meeting room, fire up the projector and make their case.
Along the way, the students can polish their abilities to work together in a small group setting, meeting in person at the convention for the first time.
“It’s incumbent on me to teach food retailing so every student realizes that this is an opportunity to work on a problem that may be plaguing or pressing in the industry, and be able to go to a conference and experience a slice of the retailing sector,” Hughner said. “It’s a tremendous learning experience.”
In the most recent competition, ASU students went to work on the thorny problem of how best to recruit and retain millennial workers at a small grocery chain based in the Memphis, Tennessee, area, one with a sky-high turnover rate that was looking for a new approach. The students found the cost to the company was staggering.
“Every company, every industry is struggling with this — and especially one that depends so heavily on hourly workers,” Hughner said. “The students found that even one employee leaving cost the company $2,300. That’s just one employee.”
Not knowing about the greater Memphis area, students first did some basic demographic work. They helped develop a survey and had it administered through another company to further home in on the workforce there. The focus was on those in the same zip codes as the stores, with no college degree, between the ages of 18 and 36.
The results showed that a major factor behind the exodus was the lack of job flexibility for workers. The students recommended a software application from a company based in Tel Aviv, one that would help prospective employees with everything from finding transportation options to babysitting.
“It was a bit surreal for me,” said Hughner of working with a foreign company. “Here we were in a conference call with them in Tel Aviv and they were customizing what we wanted and were helping with our presentation. We had come a long way."
Hughner, who has been teaching at ASU since 2002, said the university had been sending students to the NGA conference for about 15 years when the association began reaching out to incorporate academia into their programming. The association set the students up with industry mentors who can take them around the show and introduce them to people in the field. The NGA also helps pay for some of the costs of attending the event.
The competition began about eight years ago and has continued to grow, with anywhere from 12 to 16 colleges and universities nationwide competing each year. ASU has fared well over the years, coming away with a first-place finish in 2015.
Hughner says the convention and the competition offer those in the industry the chance to give students an up-close, real-world look into the food world and possibly attract some new talent into the field. At the same time, she said the benefits to the students of such an experience could not be beaten.
For Tiffany Crandell, territory sales manager for Mars Wrigley Confectionery and an ASU food industry management student, the online nature of the class was a big selling point. A mother of six with a full-time job, Crandell said venturing into a classroom was simply not an option.
Crandell, who oversees the company’s product in 22 Walmart stores, says the routine of independent work and regular Skype meetings with her classmates fit perfectly into her busy schedule. And she said the final work with her classmates at the convention site came easily and allowed the always-online student to grow.
“Being able to get together in a physical setting and work as a team got me out of my comfort zone,” Crandell said. “It was great to be able to do that. It was just a great experience, and one that will help me in whatever I do.”
She said she came away from the class and the convention with some lessons learned despite her many years in the field, and recommends that it would benefit a wide range of people interested in the food and retail industries.
“The class opened my eyes to things that I hadn’t realized before,” Crandell said.
Later this month, another group of students again will board a plane and gather in San Diego to vie against their peers at the 2020 NGA convention. This time, the student teams will offer their solutions for independent grocers seeking to make it easier and more comfortable for low-income participants and shoppers to use produce discount certificates. The goal is to help those with diet-related health conditions increase their purchase of fruits and vegetables.
This time, Hughner said with fingers crossed, the students from ASU might just take first place. But she added that the value extends well beyond how any individual team fares during any competition.
“I would love for this class to affect someone who is at a crossroads, who says maybe I should go back to school and major in food industry management because I love this industry and want to grow and advance myself,” she said. “I would love for them to find themselves at this conference and meet someone who can help them — that's my hope.”
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