Learning in Store: Retail Trek Yields Consumer Insights

Wendy Pratt explains the lay of the land

One recent Wednesday morning 17 MBA students traded statistics for…shopping.  The students were getting a look at what goes on in stores behind the scenes, as part of a Career Management trek led by Wendy Pratt, a Haas career advisor specializing in marketing and consumer packaged goods (CPG).

Pratt, who brings over 12 years of experience building brands and launching new products in the CPG world, is walking the aisles of a local Target store and Safeway grocery store to share insights on how products get developed, packaged, discounted, and placed on store shelves. The students have a variety of reasons for participating: Some are preparing for internship interviews with CPG powerhouses. Some are exploring broader applications.

Kyle Rudzinski, MBA 14, is transitioning from clean energy policy to clean energy business and says the trek helped him realize “how truly powerful marketing is.” Bronson McDonald, MBA 14, hopes to validate strategies employed by his family’s food manufacturing business (producing canned ackee, Jamaica’s national fruit). “I’ve seen the challenges in getting shelf space and market share for a new food brand,” he says. McDonald is also seeking insights for his own entrepreneurial plans for a venture transforming waste into a resource for food productions.

Bronson McDonald (l. with Andy Rios) gleans insights for his family’s business and for his future entrepreneurial plans

Stephanie Curran and Allie O’Brien, both MBA 14, are interested in CPG careers. Curran, in fact, is preparing for an interview the following week and “wants to learn more about how to get into the mind of the consumer from a brand management perspective.”

O’Brien came to Haas after working in energy consulting. She enjoyed the marketing components of her energy work, but likes the idea of focusing on products that consumers not only connect with daily, but connect with emotionally. She’s also interested in being “the head of a business within a business” and in having the responsibility for profit and loss that comes with brand management.

Moving through Target, the students learn about entry point marketing (capturing consumer loyalty at the outset of a major life change, such as having a baby), category captains (those brands with #1 share who control much of what happens on shelf space and merchandising), and key trends, such as seasonal merchandise—this against a backdrop of cookies and tortilla chips done up in black and orange for Halloween.

Perfect test subjects, the group finds themselves unable to resist the lure of well-presented merchandise, stopping to browse plush baby toys, men’s shirts, and plaid PJ bottoms. Eliza Rosenbaum, MBA 14, leaves with a Cal hoodie. “There was just no time to shop in Fall A and I really needed something for Big Game,” she explains. O’Brien makes her own brand selections, leaving with the coffee and kitchen sponges on her roomate’s shopping list–along with a few impulse purchases.

“The trek is a really interactive way to teach and discuss the importance of merchandising, shelf presence, packaging, and all other aspects of the marketing mix,” says Pratt. “The best way to learn the basics of marketing and discuss trends in consumer behavior is to see how CPG companies handle the marketing mix on the ‘front line’ as consumers see it.”

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