“Students as consumers” is well established as a higher education buzz phrase. But what about a classroom that also serves as a fully functioning shop serving the public in a busy city shopping centre? For Southampton Solent University students involved with Re:So, the reality is more “students as retailers”.
The brainchild of Lisa Mann, programme group leader for fashion management degree courses at Solent, Re:So began life in 2012 as a pilot retail initiative encouraging and supporting student entrepreneurship and work-based learning. The landlords of the Marlands Shopping Centre in Southampton approached the university to see if it could make use of an empty unit.
Ms Mann said that she immediately saw the potential of a “really exciting space” to “breathe life” into students’ education. Capitalising on its success, Ms Mann spearheaded a move to a bigger permanent site in Marlands in 2014. The result: a new 1,800 square foot unit.
Like the previous venue, the new site sports a retail space selling a mix of fashion, accessories, publications, furniture and artworks produced by Solent’s creative subjects students and graduates. Re:So, which comes from “Retail Solent”, also has an upper floor. This is used as teaching space for art, design and fashion courses, but it also doubles as a “learning zone”, hosting guest speakers from the fashion industry, workshops, photo shoots and exhibitions.
Ms Mann, who ran her own fashion label providing retail and wholesale womenswear before joining Solent, said: “The retail space is used for practical working with the students in a live space with real customers coming into it.
“The professional nature of what they’re doing is very important. A lot of people imagine themselves to be entrepreneurs, and the fashion/design students want to be the next person to be successful on the catwalk at London Fashion Week.
“They have this high aspirational vision that we absolutely want to encourage them to go for. But they also need to understand about commercialising their ideas, how enterprise and being an entrepreneur really works: all the theory that’s behind it, the research that has to be done, and the understanding of the consumer and the market. This space allows them to really grasp it properly.”
A team of final-year students run the shop, which also provides a variety of work-based learning opportunities for hundreds of other students on Solent’s fashion courses. Ms Mann stressed that the operation is not a profit-making one, although it pays for the core team of student managers.
“We’re taking enough money to cover our costs,” she said. “I’m trying to make it as real as possible for the students. For them to understand business, I have to encourage them that we [need to] bring in enough money to cover our costs.
“If we do have [extra] money, I give it back to teams of students to set up other areas in the store. They then have to go and use that money to source stock. We [subsequently] reflect on how well they did that.”
The store was the first completely student-operated retail initiative in the UK. Ms Mann’s recent shortlisting for a 2015 National Enterprise Education Award, in the higher education category, attests to the success of the project, which has already picked up a 2013 Purple Apple Marketing Merit Award for Community Relations from the British Council of Shopping Centres.
“It’s a public project, and we’ve been working in the space with local businesses trying to promote themselves by doing pop-ups in the store.” The operation is also attracting “interest from other universities wanting to know how we set this up and how the model works”, said Ms Mann, who is about to embark on a PhD on creative enterprise through new retail models at the London College of Fashion.
Academics are beginning to consider the research potential of Re:So, and the store’s future is exciting now that it is “embedded into the curriculum”.
“I have lots of plans, one of which is looking at social enterprise. I’m working with a women’s group in Nepal [producing clothing] and we are going to be their first stockists ever,” she said. “We’ve got students who’ll be working with them to brand the products, helping these women to develop their business.
“I’m going to take Re:So on tour around the UK, to show the market what our students are doing and how we’re supporting them to be entrepreneurial.”
1 – Re:So is the UK’s first fully student-operated retail initiative
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