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Small store offers big lessons for Rutgers Business School students

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It wasn’t a hard sell.

When a group of Rutgers Business School supply chain students was offered a chance to run a store at Newark Liberty International Airport, they knew it was not going to be a typical class project.

"We thought it was an interesting concept and a challenge,” said Ryan Fontanazza, a senior studying supply chain management and labor studies. “It was something really different.”

Jersey Bound is more like a kiosk than an actual store. Located along the corridor called Liberty Terrace at Newark Liberty’s Terminal B, its backlit shelves display a variety of merchandise in eye-catching, elegant fashion.

Everything Jersey Bound sells is produced by artisans, small manufacturers and business people from New Jersey. They are unique: colorful glass plates and jewelry, sweet-smelling soaps, whimsical candles, tasty chocolates, specialty teas and local honey.

The store was created from a partnership involving a handful of area companies, the Greater Newark Convention & Visitors Bureau, Newark Boundmagazine and Westfield Corp., which manages retail at Newark Liberty for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In an airport that is often identified merely as “New York” on arriving flights, the idea was to promote New Jersey artists and businesses.

Kevin Lyons, a supply chain management professor at Rutgers Business School, became involved late last year, with the intention of turning Jersey Bound into an internship-like experience for his students.

It is the type of collaboration between Rutgers students and professors and local business that is one of the priorities Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor has emphasized in her strategic vision for the Newark Campus as a way to not only enhance learning and teaching but also to help spur economic development in the city.

Lyons’ students, Fontanazza and Neel Sai, who is also a senior, took the lead and eventually nine more students joined the effort to assume responsibility for operating the store. (The experience counts as an independent study worth three academic credits to the students.)

The advantage of Jersey Bound, Lyons said, is that it gives students a “hands on”experience in all facets of the operation, from procuring merchandise to staffing to selling. It also offers students a much broader experience than an internship.

"This is something they control," Lyons said. "The excitement is all about the experience they’re getting.”

For the students, the experience was eye-opening. Few had previous retail experience, so they spent a Saturday afternoon getting some coaching from Westfield, and on their own, they learned the stories behind the artists and the companies to help engage and entice shoppers.

They searched for new vendors to add to their selection of merchandise. Sai built an online presence, so travelers hurrying by could take a card and shop again when they had more time. With a limited budget, they did marketing on social media and business cards.

"You don’t realize how much it takes to do marketing until you try to do it," John Sanchez, a junior studying supply chain management and accounting, said as he worked at the store one afternoon.  

Low sales and pricing turned out to be one of the students’ first major challenges. Making sure someone could get to the store during winter’s first storms was another.

"We have to figure out what’s selling and what needs to be changed,” Fontanazza said shortly after the students started operating the store. “Some of the price points may need adjusting.”

The objective isn’t necessarily for the students to make a profit, but there are operating costs, including rent that have to be paid, so finding more affordable products that could help boost revenues became a priority.  

Weeks later, they stocked candy from a chocolatier from Mercer County, started courting a new jewelry-maker and returned some of the most expensive pieces of handmade glass work.

Sai, a senior supply chain management and economics student, said the experience of "being completely responsible for something" has been enlightening and rewarding.

"It’s like being a small business owner in that everything that happens, whether it’s good or bad,” he said, "it’s because of you."