Best wishes for the New Year, I hope 2018 is successful and productive for our students, faculty, friends, and partners.
Over the weekend I was catching up on some reading after learning that a major department store would be closing their only Vermont location, further reducing the retail options and comfort of a presence many of us experienced growing up in the age of emerging shopping malls and large national retail chains. Quite coincidentally I was also catching up on some periodical reading, including one of the major business publications in which a story on the changing footprint of the big chain retail store appeared. I couldn’t help but draw several parallels to higher education, particularly since many institutions, like Norwich, are in the midst of strategic planning efforts that some (like me) view as paradigmatic.
One of the retail trends cited in business is a movement toward reducing the size of the physical store, often significantly, to provide a much more focused and smaller footprint. It is important to have brand clarity in those circumstances, much like contemporary universities work to define the same and identify niches in which they may be successful. Coupled with a vibrant online sales platform, the retail establishment can produce what is essentially a hybrid experience and maintain both physical and virtual visibility while reducing cost. Retail establishments can no longer survive if they are effectively giant warehouses. And consumers are increasingly comfortable with the ease and convenience of shopping for almost everything online for all or part of the purchase experience.
Educational institutions can learn from this trend by paying attention to the fundamental dynamics of changes in retail practice; after all students are in many ways consumers whether we agree with the parallel or not. Perhaps the most important lesson is that by incorporating online instruction into the full mix of offerings the need for large fixed costs and capacity constraints represented by buildings can be minimized. Furthermore, the hybrid approach also suggests that having multiple locations near your customer base (students in this case) can cost-effectively be achieved through small physical facilities from which robust virtual offerings are available, at an economy of scale because they may be shared across locations.
We all like the assurance of having a physical location and people to talk to if needed, whether it be in retail sales or education. Studies have repeatedly shown that the majority of students attend online programs in close proximity to their physical location for this very reason, even if it limits their options. One conclusion that might be derived from application of the business trend to higher education is that multiple locations with a smaller physical footprint, tied into a robust virtual “inventory” might offer greater advantages for brand exposure and enrollment opportunities than were previously available.
I’ll be watching the retail sales transformation more closely in the future, particularly since I believe there are underlying lessons that could be of benefit to higher education as it continues to change its structure and delivery approaches. The logic of responsiveness to constituents will drive this process as has recent stepped-up political attention, media scrutiny, and governmental regulation. The next five to ten years will be formative and perhaps represent a paradigm shift for which we will have a front row seat!