Engaging Tomorrow’s Retail Leaders

November 17, 2014



College students become acquainted early on with the world of work. Research suggests that as many as a quarter of all students work more than 20 hours a week, and the place where many of those students will find those jobs is in retail. Retail has traditionally been a mainstay for students needing to pay their own way through college with part-time jobs in everything from fast food to fashion. But those early steps into employment could represent a far more significant opportunity to fully develop professional career choices in the retail industry, and that’s especially true for the job seekers of the millennial generation.

Why Retail Resonates

With over 10,000 students working in Barnes & Noble College stores, the company is a major employer of Millennials. Already a fixture on college campuses throughout the country, Barnes & Noble College represents a familiar and stimulating employment prospect for many. Lisa Malat, Vice President, Marketing & Operations for Barnes & Noble College, points out that enviable position provides a unique opportunity to develop an up close and personal insight with Millennial students. “We’re there for their college tours, when they attend their orientation, to that moment when they pick up their cap and gown and become alumni,” she says. “And we collaborate with our campus partners and create social hubs on campus.” But it’s not a labor pool Barnes & Noble College takes for granted. “In order to continue to be a Millennial employer of choice — and to be able to recruit and retain the best and the brightest talent — we needed to make sure we truly understood what motivates this generation,” Malat says.

What Millennials Want

Lisa Malat, Vice President, Marketing & Operations for Barnes & Noble College, spoke at the Texas A&M Retailing Summit on "Capturing Millennial Attention: Why Retail Resonates."
Lisa Malat, Vice President, Marketing & Operations for Barnes & Noble College, spoke at the Texas A&M Retailing Summit on “Capturing Millennial Attention: Why Retail Resonates.”

That determination prompted Barnes & Noble College to partner with Joan Kuhl, founder of Why Millennials Matter, to launch a nationwide study to gain a better understanding of students’ career expectations. The results of the study helped underscore the kinds of characteristics and preferences, which only convince Malat that retail is the perfect choice for the Millennial generation. She shared those insights recently at a conference hosted by Texas A&M University’s Center for Retailing Studies, with a message to other retailers that they should not ignore. “Today’s students also are optimistic and ambitious,” Malat says. “They want to be promoted quickly — 65 percent within two years or less, but they are also willing to pay their dues, they want to be part of the process, and to be given the space to create and to lead.”

The evidence of that ambition can be found in Barnes & Noble College’s own stores where more than 70 percent of store managers fall within the Millennial demographic. “They are passionate, talented, committed people who start out in our stores, learn our culture, and continue to transition to larger roles within our organization,” Malat notes.

Research from Texas A&M’s Career Center found similar findings. “Texas A&M has really good data from our Career Center about what Aggies are looking for when they select that future career path, says Kelli Hollinger, Director, Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University. “One of those top things they most consider is ‘how can I advance?’ They don’t expect to be the CEO the first day on the job. They do, though, expect to be nurtured, encouraged and given the tools they need to blossom, so that later on they can become leaders in the organization.”

At Texas A&M’s 2014 Retailing Conference, Malat found plenty of audience members who agreed with her. One student who shared her experiences working at the Barnes & Noble at Texas A&M bookstore and how it helped her decide where to attend school, and the University’s marketing head commented that his daughter, also a Texas A&M bookseller, had honed those learned skills into a successful career in finance. While Malat concedes Millennials are hungry for guidance, new experiences and the desire to keep learning, she points to the success of Barnes & Noble College’s own Bestseller Management Development Program as an opportunity to teach, develop and mentor. “More than 80 percent of our student booksellers will be with our company a year from now, and, if history repeats itself, nearly 70 percent will be with us for the long run — it’s proven to be a very successful strategy for us.”


Texas A&M Retail Summit_room


Those statistics are impressive given retail’s high employee turn-over rate. Giving Millennials the training, guidance and opportunities they need and want is the key to keeping talented future leaders in an organization. “I started as a bookseller and from there I chose the Bestseller Program, and then from there, I took the opportunity at the University of Houston Downtown Bookstore as the assistant store manager,” says Sam Gunter. “The ability to grow is there. And it’s available for each person if they want to take it. All over the region we’ve had people that have started out just like me at the basic level and have moved up to go ahead and do great things with the company.”

Students Become the Teachers

The Millennial generation will represent 75 percent of the global workforce in just a few years, and as much as retail might have a lot to offer them, Malat says that likewise, retailers must be willing to learn from Millennials as both employees and customers. “This group will not only represent the largest portion of the workforce in the next few years, they also will represent the greatest spending power,” she says. “We learn from our students every day, and I never walk away from a conversation with our student employees where I am not impressed and inspired. They want to be given diverse opportunities, to move quickly — to make a difference and make an impact on the business and, as retailers; this is great news, because that is exactly what we need.”