Case Study 5 : The Retail Game

John Pal and Mark Stubbs, Manchester Metropolitan University

The Retail Game (www.theRetailGame.com) was designed to be used by first year undergraduates on the BA (Hons) Retail Marketing degree at MMU Business School. It replaced a paper-based store planning exercise where students had to make both strategic and operational decisions about how a new retail outlet should be positioned in a small town .

The Retail Game

The game has been used on the Retail Operations unit, a compulsory course for first year students on the Retail Marketing degree. The unit is one of six studied in the first year, and students undertake both a piece of coursework assessment and end of year examination. The game has also been used at Babson College in Babson where final year students undertake the game as part of a larger unit run by leading retail academic Professor Michael Levy.

The full cohort has used the game; the unit usually enrolls about 30 students but the game has also been used with groups of up to 50 international business students on an English-language summer school.

Users are provided with background information about the fictional retail clothing company, FashCo, who currently have 50 outlets of up to 2000 square feet in size. Allied with this, the introductory background information contains a series of linked pages titled Research. These pages provide data on local competition, national clothing trends, and the demographic composition of the local population. Also provided are current performance data for the company as a whole e.g. sales per square foot by product.

Armed with these data users have to choose and justify a product and service strategy (which incorporates levels of service and wage rates). Having chosen their strategy users are then presented with further screens where they are required to allocate space to products, determine the staffing complement in terms of the proportion of permanent to temporary staff, and the proportion of full day to part day staff. Moving through the game users also have to decide upon, and justify, a stockloss prevention strategy before finally being presented with a results page that can be printed off. On the results page is a blank store plan that has to be completed off-screen using the space allocation decisions made earlier in the process.

The previous paper-based exercise with the same learning objectives required too much emphasis on data entry and manipulation, and whilst the use of a spreadsheet template enabled the teaching team to validate results far too much time was spent in this part of the exercise for both staff and students. In addition, a mis-entry by students could jeopardize their whole proposal. Most critically it was felt that too little understanding of the principles involved in the new store planning process was demonstrated. In order to undertake the exercise groups had to be formed and the issues of non-participation and lack of reflection were clearly evident. By contrast the new approach permitted anytime/anywhere (home or university) flexibility.

Moreover the new approach enabled the testing of various proposals and the iterations undertaken by students allowed them to see the impact of changing variables on their final outcome. By removing the time-consuming data entry and validation process by the adoption of a database-driven exercise, that had conditions that could not be breeched, ensured that only fully-formed proposals could be submitted.

The over-riding concern was to ensure that greater user emphasis was given to the development and justification of underlying principles rather than the tedium of data entry. By adopting a database driven ‘back end’ enabled the data to be changed from year to year with very little effort by the teaching team.

The over-arching approach used was that aligned to the Kolb cycle with an emphasis on the testing out of various combinations of product and service mix. The lecture and tutorial program that ran alongside the students’ use of the game enabled them to either start from a theoretical / principles stance or immediately immerse themselves in the frequent testing out of ideas. With user feedback we made a number of fundamental changes: the introduction of a performance toolbar across all screens enabled users to see quickly their planned financial returns; the introduction of mandatory free-text prompts to justify decisions made at each stage ensured that ‘click and move’ actions were avoided; and the introduction of a save function so that different proposals could be compared before submitting a chosen one for assessment was developed.

The learning outcomes related to a knowledge base, namely an understanding of marketing principles and retail operational issues, such as an appreciation of store layout principles and labor scheduling requirements; and to decision making skills and the justification of decisions made. The use of the Chartered Institute of Marketing’s asset requirements was also taken account of in the design. Interpersonal skills were tested by the requirement for students to undertake the game on their own and then they formed small groups and submitted one group effort based on their accumulated knowledge from doing the game. As well as the lectures and tutorials that were running alongside the exercise, bespoke tutor feedback on each submission was provided as was generic feedback.

As already alluded to, the users have to do three main tasks in the game:

  • Examine and interpret the research data about the company, local population and national trends.
  • Make decisions on store positioning in terms of products to display and the scheduling of the workforce as well as considering their wage rates and composition.
  • Justify decisions at each stage through text boxes.

Around the game first year undergraduate students have had to provide a short report outlining the strengths and weaknesses of their proposals as well as drawing on best practice and benchmark data of other retailers. The international summer school cohort has delivered an oral presentation about their decisions.

For three years the game was used as the platform for a separate interpersonal skills unit delivered solely to retail-enrolled students. The context of the game, which focuses on the planning of the new store, was embellished and all students were provided with the first year’s trading results. In addition each student was provided with a brief description of an executive role e.g. stockloss prevention manager, finance director, buying director and so on, and certain objectives. Students then met in groups of eight and used their role play vignettes as a basis for negotiating what should happen to remedy the trading situation.

The game was introduced to students at an oral briefing although in later years announcements and documents listed in the unit’s virtual learning environment was all that was required for students to gain access and get started. Similarly the game has been used at Babson College, Boston USA without any input from the designers of the game - the use of a briefing pack provided to the tutor there sufficed.

The outputs from the game itself provided one measure of students’ understanding of the principles involved in the opening of a new store as well as appreciating the practice gained through both decisions made and the justifications of those decisions through the benchmarking activity that students were supposed to engage in.

It was clear that greater appreciation of the principles was achieved and the student feedback was favorable. Both these areas are reported on in our other articles about the game (Pal & Stubbs, 2002; Stubbs & Pal, 2003; Pal et al, 2005).

A web-based browser format was chosen that meant that the game was not reliant on any specific software package. Whilst this gave greater flexibility it meant that the use of active server page technology had to be tested on a whole range of browsers.

One of the team had a half time release from normal duties through the awarding of a university fellowship. However, too much of that time was spent in the initial stages in trying to master Macromedia Ultra Dev. On securing funds from a European Social Fund Project the novice programmer (John) was able to recruit the technically adept programming skills (of Mark) required for the project to get completed. The costs of about £5000 did not however show the true costs of programming as the hours logged were far in excess of those claimed.

The design was a collaboration between two individuals with complementary skills: one with the technical savvy to write the appropriate scripting and the other with the retail-specific know-how. A rapid prototyping approach was adopted and once the overarching design was established the greatest amount of the time was given over the testing of the site.

There is no doubt that a major part of the time spent on the development of the site was the majority of the time was spent on testing the game.


Tips

  1. Be clear in your objectives.
  2. Keep objectives simple.
  3. Be prepared to be frustrated by the technology.
  4. Enable users to see progress rather than having a black-box approach that many other games tend to use.