Local Store Gets PR Boost

December 3, 2016


Students tackle collaboration – local business scores

Energy that's created by collaboration is undeniable. When academic hunger meets real-world business needs great things can happen, which is why JCCC's Small Business Development Center (SBDC) and four credit classes are stoked about their tie-in with The General Store and Co., an eclectic downtown Overland Park emporium.

Students from four Johnson County Community College classes are working to amp up The General Store's marketing, social media exposure, target market and customer service.

JCCC instructors Barbara Millard, Gretchen Thum, Lorie Paldino and Pamela Hulen designed curriculum and wove assignments around the various aspects of small business and the challenges facing owners Mike Cole and John Lucas. Members of the Enactus Club are involved along with students in:

  • Professional Selling (Hulen)
  • Retail Management (Millard)
  • Principles of Public Relations (Thum)
  • Business Communications (Paldino)

"The unique collaboration of all four of our classes is awesome," said Gretchen Thum, JCCC instructor. "All the different perspectives that our classes bring to this project is amazing."

Students' feedback has given Cole and Lucas enough information to transform point-of-sale systems, accounting programs and social media blitzes. And, one student even pushed them to cater to a new demographic – guys.

"Most of our customers are women," said Cole. "But one of the male students said, 'Hey, you've got some great stuff for men, where is your marketing push for them?'"

The students' professionalism has impressed Cole and Lucus.

"The students have genuine critiques and they are very respectful in their delivery," Cole said. "We are not silent when we meet with them, and the dialogue has been very advantageous for all of us."

Step-by-Step into a real-life experience

Students have relayed to their instructors that they enjoy having a real case study rather than fictitious scenarios from a textbook. The collaborate method allows them to ask questions and make real recommendations. 

The first step the SBDC and instructors take to select a client for this combo effort is to consider one that is responsive, receptive, prepared and eager to engage with students.

"They [Cole and Lucas] have been very open and brave throughout this process," said John Addessi, KSBDC consultant who has guided Cole and Lucas for several years.

Step two is to facilitate an open consulting session with a SBDC business advisor, the store owners and all four classes in attendance. Throughout the semester, meetings are held at the store, in the classroom and in JCCC's CoLab, the college's latest brick and mortar space that offers an "academic think tank" atmosphere to encourage students and faculty to connect with area businesses and community organizations. At the meetings, data is gathered, statistics studied, strategies analyzed and changes recommended based on what students have learned in class and observed from real-life business practices. Students will then present their findings and a productive discussion will ensue that will give the owners options that should ultimately increase sales by giving them affordable marketing and business strategy options.

"The students and instructors have been doing a lot of heavy lifting. The faculty created some great lessons for this opportunity, and the students' work has been amazing," said Addessi.

The distinct mix of students has its advantages. Some from retail classes may ask totally different questions than those from PR classes which leads to other queries and perspectives.

"Bringing together students from different classes/different majors/different background makes for a much richer classroom experience when working with the business," said Millard.

Millard predicts collaborative work for classrooms will grow over time.

"This is a new approach, and we are still in the process of developing a format and we [instructors] will be updating it as business trends change with the times," she said.

Secret shopping sleuths

Addessi and Millard chose The General Store from among the nearly 500 businesses that the SBDC advises each year because its owners are very relatable, open to input and their products are varied and fun. It’s also close enough to the college that students can visit; one class was even assigned as secret shoppers, which is usually a pricey service that was free, compliments of Marketing and Principles of Public Relations students.

"Certain themes have sprung up from the secret shopper reports regarding professional selling and merchandising, and the students are working on their recommendations. These are all skills they'll need in their upcoming jobs," Addessi said.

Millard thinks the students' suggestions will have actual impact for the store.

"As with any business owners working with a consultant, they will have to decide which recommendations they are comfortable moving forward with and which they aren't," she said. "Of course, it will take time to see results but the owners are already implementing some of the students' recommendations especially from the perspective of gaining insight from their age group."

Skills set for the future

Employers hire for experience and skills, which can be hard to come by for new graduates. The students get to tackle issues that most businesses face which provides excellent examples to bring up during job interviews.

"Students involved in this project will have proof that they can "walk the walk, talk the talk," Addessi said. "A real-life business is a perfect case study!"

JCCC faculty work to keep the curricula fresh and up-to-date, all the more necessary in marketing, so the students are learning about some of the latest tools and then applying that knowledge. They're also learning to think about the target market and the sensibilities of the client and their customers.

"What's terrific about this project is that it is a true collaboration – right down to using the college's new CoLab. It's not any one's project – it exists and succeeds because everyone is working together," Addessi said.

Thum's students recommended many PR techniques that The General Store could consider and implement. These included use of social media, special events, publicity stunts, blogging and other promotional plans.

"Students are 'digital natives' – this is their world," said Addessi.

The Principles of Public Relations class has been assigned to create an array of social posts that the client can use over time. SBDC often coaches on what and how to post and perhaps provide an example or two, but the students have gone above and beyond to create a month or more of material.

"My students learn what it's really like to work in PR, and it helps them figure out their academic path," said Thum. "My students thrive on this!"

Go to these links to learn about classes that will lead you into a marketing and public relations career. To learn more about the Kansas Small Business Development Center training and business advising, call 913-469-3878.