EP12 – Retail at Ryerson: Where Teaching Meets the Geography of Business

For many years Ryerson University has been known as one of the best schools in which to study retail location theory. And today, I’ll be speaking with Dr. Joe Aversa, an Assistant Professor at Ryerson Ted Rogers School of Retail Management in Toronto, Canada. His current research interests and teaching responsibilities include retail location decision-making, big data analytics, retail planning and location strategy. All the topics related to the focus of our podcast series… where geospatial technology meets business. Stay tuned.


JF: So, Joe, yeah great pleasure to meet you, and thanks, and as I said, I really appreciated Ryerson’s commitment to business geography. And so, I’ve known it for many years, one of the best schools to go and study Retail Location Theory and I’m kind of curious what kind of students are drawn to the program and how do you sell them on a career in geospatial technology?

Joe Aversa:  Well, that’s the hard part, right Joe. It’s not easy to get the students, sort of, I guess hyped up, in terms of what they can do with GIS, and especially within the business side. When they’re in high school, and that’s just because there’s a curriculum divide. In high school, geography classes are very different than what you would get at Ryerson and because of that there’s always been this sort of detachment, so it’s not an easy thing to get them to be aware. I think the big selling feature is just the practical side, right. Being able to teach students how to leverage spatial data that can literally help with decision-making. Regardless of what the discipline is and I think that’s where you kind of start off from and then you always have those, the students, that will naturally gravitate towards the business side. Now Ryerson is well known for their retail stuff and yeah that’s kind of… but it’s not an easy thing to get the hype, to get students hyped up about it, at the high school level. Once they’re in, it’s a different story but it’s about trying to get them in that’s always a bit of a challenge.

JF: When they come in, are they coming in as like geography majors? Or, are they actually focused on retail studies and getting the whole picture about retail?

JA: Yeah, it depends on the program. I’m no longer in geography. I’ve actually moved over to the School of Retail Management, so it depends if they’re doing… if they’re in retail management, there’s geo… there’s data visualization courses, and there are classes that they’re required to take that teach them GIS. In the geography program, where GIS is sort of embedded in the curriculum, those students, they basically come in directly into a geography major or, what’s called the Geographic Analysis Program, where they then can choose a stream in retail, right. So, there’s individual streams that they have access to and then they can make decisions based off of, in terms of the types of courses that they’re more interested in, and one of the largest categories is that retail side.

JF:  So, I’ll tell you a little personal story and hopefully you can appreciate it, or at least laugh out loud, but when I was selecting my major in college I was trying to decide that should I be a Geography major or a Geology major and I went to the library and I picked up a geography book I turned to this page with a ton of equations and I thought, ”Math, in geography, no no no”,  so I ended up becoming a Geology major and eventually ended up my way over to here. So, all those ideas of Spatial Interaction Models, I’ve all come back and now have been planted in my brain. But what kind of a student really goes into this and gets immersed in the… kind of the math side, as opposed to just maybe the more qualitative side?

JA: Yeah, I think there’s… I mean when you have any student that comes into a program, or they’re looking at let’s say, a geography degree, I think that in Canada the curriculum, the geography curriculum, in terms of what people are taught in high schools, doesn’t have that focus, and so when they tend to come, they come with the anticipation that it’s going to be lighter on the math front. When they get there and as you start to get into some of the modeling, then you start to learn about these things, but I think the commonality that you require from any student that comes in, and I think the thing that draws students to it is, just that knack for that spatial thinking, right. To think about things from a spatial context and then those other pieces kind of come in later, right, in terms of teaching some of those fundamentals or maybe what can be considered the harder courses in terms of like having to teach them how to model and how to teach them those intricate math equations.

JF: Right, how do you balance that with teaching them the fundamentals and then bringing in the tools like a GIS system? And, where does the emphasis lie? Because there are some universities that have a GIS major and I often thought that that’s the wrong way to do it, right. You ought to teach the discipline first and then teach the tool. I mean what’s your perspective?

JA: Yeah, I think you’re 100% right, Joe. So, I’ve been in meetings with… I obviously don’t have to tell you this but GIS, the diffusion of GIS  has been spectacular over the last two decades. It’s harder to find businesses that do not do GIS than versus ones that do and the reality is a lot of people that they’re leveraging that, the software and the technologies and the methodologies, are not necessarily people that have gone through formal education in those areas and I think, from my perspective, is that; software packages, right, the software side of things is meant to make it easy, right. The easier it is to utilize the software, the more likely you are to sell a lot of licenses. And there’s a bit of detachment in that and so I’m very cautious in just teaching a set of skills within a software package. I think it’s more important to understand and what you’re putting in and how to interpret some of those outputs. My favorite example is: people love Hot Spot maps, right. They love seeing different types of maps that show maybe concentrations of customers or whatever it might be, right. There’s a nice visual effect that it provides but if you don’t understand what clustering is or how it’s evaluated or how it’s measured and what it actually means for there to be a statistically significant cluster, then all of that legwork or all of that… whatever the output might be, right, could lead to making bad decisions or misinformed decisions.

JF: So, there are really two frames in mind and I’m really curious about your opinion. We have the map as a metaphor, it is a great visualization tool but sometimes the map is not needed, right. There is the underlying spatial query that we generate. Sometimes it looks good on a map. That’s right, but what we often say is, “wow“, without seeing it, you really can’t understand it and appreciate it as opposed to seeing it in a spreadsheet, right. Like there’s all that data but when you see it on the map, it’s great but sometimes the map isn’t the answer. So, I’m curious what you see.

JA: Yeah, I think if we think about GIS there’s always this end result, right. Like for most people, the end result is the map. It’s the end of the analysis. It’s the piece that you use to visualize. But there are lots of methods that make awful maps, for interpretation. So, for example, Huff Models. If you do a Huff model and you try to map the different neighborhoods or if you’re doing it for multiple stores, it becomes very difficult to sort of visualize these things. And I think it’s as much an artist, as it is a science, to be able to convey that message, right, to actually convey whatever the findings might be of these… the spatial results of whatever it is that you’ve done. I think there are a lot of different software packages out there that allow for automation, that make it a little bit easier. There are different ways to digitally view mapping. So there are lots of different tools that now exist that make it a bit easier to visualize data more effectively but yeah, I mean it’s a problem. And ultimately, a lot of decision-makers, they like the map, right. They like that end product that can help them drive a decision. But yeah, it is definitely a fine balance between finding a useful map, as opposed to just producing something that’s a lot less effective.

JF: Yeah, I would agree with you, and teaching things like the Huff Model, I think provides a really good foundation. I sometimes show a picture of the Huff Model in presentations to people who have no idea what GIS is, so I try to scare them with the equation, right. And a long time ago I had the great pleasure of knowing David Huff and he always used to say, “don’t call my model a gravity model,” right! He was really adamant about that. But one of the things that you should understand about whether it’s a gravity model or a health spatial interaction model is, we ask these spatial questions every day. We just don’t know that we ask these spatial questions. And, do you think students lack a fundamental understanding of how to think spatially?

JA: I do. I think it’s probably the most difficult thing. Like, I can teach anybody to do something! Like, if we had a one-on-one time I could sit there and teach you how to make a map. I could teach you how to utilize a variety of different software packages to be able to do things. I can teach that to my children! My young… my six-year-old daughter, I could sit her on my lap and I could have her make a map. That’s not the challenging part. The challenging part is the ability to think in a spatial way. To ask spatial questions. And to think spatially first, often times. And it’s not an easy thing. I remember sitting in a class with a bunch of business students, just many years ago, and I remember there was a case that we were given, and part of the case was to identify why this company had failed. And there were a bunch of business students, and everybody, we kinda went through each individual student. Every student was like, “oh, it was a marketing issue” or “it was an operations issue” and it kind of went down the list of all these sorts of business-related reasons why it failed, but not one person in that group, or in this class, really thought about the geography of it, right. The spatial reason why it failed! And I remember sitting there thinking to myself like, that was the first thing I thought about! Like the first thing that kind of crossed my mind was the geography piece. It’s like well, what are the spatial implications of this, of this business that might have resulted in its demise? And I think that it’s not an easy thing necessarily for a lot of people, and some people don’t gravitate towards that, but I think especially for students that are coming into these types of programs. For example, I teach a lot of retail management students, a lot of the problems that they encounter are geographic problems. Whether it’s supply chain issue. Whether it’s a marketing element that we’re investigating or talking about. Or, whether it’s site selection or doing market-based analysis. All these things have a spatial characteristic to them, right. So, it’s just really about trying to get the students to think about those kinds of things first and then think about how everything kind of feeds into that spatial lens.

JF: Where do you think retailers are today in their adoption of the technology and maybe more specifically to the sophistication that they’re employing? You find them going beyond dots on the map and three-mile trade areas and all that?

JA:  I think, the answer to that is, yes and no. So, like you have… you’re going to find retailers that are at the head of the curb in that regard and are probably adopting more sophisticated kind of methodologies.  I actually looked at this with my Ph.D. work a few years back where I surveyed a bunch of businesses to see where they were in terms of the use of spatial big data and these new technologies and new methodologies, that kind of exist out there. And one of the things that I found was that, for the most part, a lot of these businesses were still doing the same old kind of data crunching and using the same methods, the same technologies that they were in the past. I think one of the fundamental differences is that the nature of their data has changed. Also, the reliance on data has changed. And so, the majority of what they collect is geographic data. They have these repositories that maybe historically they weren’t being leveraged as much, or weren’t being embedded in the decision-making processes as much, and we’re starting to see that change a little bit in the sense that it’s rare to find someone making a decision, whether it’s about where to open up a store or whatever… maybe it’s a marketing initiative within the store. Without being informed by the data that they have access to. And so that’s, I think, where the big change is sort of happening. Is that there’s a greater reliance on it. With that said, there’s some businesses… I know of some financial sector/businesses, a few companies in terms of general merchandise, retailers, that are quite sophisticated in the way that they analyze their geographic data and what we’re starting to see is really sort of… it’s no longer, you walk into these places and it’s like ArcGIS, or mapping for ArcGIS is what we have on our machines, and that’s what we’re leveraging. What you’re starting to see now is all these different types of visualization tools that they have access to create these interactive dashboards or different ways to house the data and to be able to accommodate the data and to mine the data, and it’s really this sort of… we’re starting to see this sort of marriage between the data scientists and the geographic analyst and so you’re starting to see that with some companies, but I don’t think it’s necessarily widespread in terms of all businesses. And yeah, I mean there’s still some decent amount of reliance on the traditional.

JF: So, to the earlier question, do you teach them more data science or do you teach them more retail location analytics? And maybe that’s a loaded question because there are, I think, obviously two these days right.

JA: For sure, so the way that I teach my students because a lot of the students that I do teach are not data scientists. So I use this iceberg example, Joe, where it’s like I’ll draw an iceberg on the board in the class or on my virtual notepad while I’m teaching, and I’ll draw this iceberg and I’ll show the surface of the water and they’ll see like 90% of the icebergs beneath the surface, 10% above the surface. And then I draw this little box that covers the top part of the iceberg and about maybe 10 to 15% beneath that surface, and I teach them that they need to be aware of everything that happens underneath like true data science kind of stuff that’s taking place. And they need to know how to communicate that. But for the most part, these are not data scientists that were training, specifically in these types of programs. But that’s not to say that we don’t have anybody like that. There are students that do have interest in that and they push that envelope a little further but for the most part, at least for myself, I can speak for myself, I stick to that top part of that iceberg. Slightly beneath the surface, the rest of the top, in terms of like the whole body of data and decision-making kind of techniques that might be available. So that’s where they sort of live. And that’s kind the way I structure my content in my courses.

JF: Yeah, well maybe just one final question. Where are students finding the jobs? Are there jobs available for your students these days? And are they getting good pay? And they’re recognized as a necessary asset?

JA:  Uh, Joe. Now that’s the big selling part of our program, is especially specific of the Geographic Analysis Program and even of the Retail Management program, now that I’m being part of. Is that, if you’re looking for people with the retail skills, as well as the geospatial skills. As I mentioned, it’s harder to find retail organizations that do not do GIS  versus ones that do and so there’s a huge appetite for individuals with these skill sets. And so from an employment perspective, this has never been sort of the problem, of these types of programs or students that have these skill sets, because there’s always been a place and specifically at Ryerson University, we are known for this and so a lot of these retailers will actually reach out to look for grads for those types of positions. And from the employment side that is where I think a lot of our students excel, is on the exit. It’s taking the skills that they learn within their four years and then applying that into the workplace and that’s why we’ve been so successful at pushing out grads and having them employed relatively quickly and in positions that are reflective of the education that they’ve been given over that four-year degree.

JF:  Great! Yeah well, I guess I’ve always admired Ryerson and what a fantastic reputation has. So, thanks again, so much for your time, Joe. Been a great conversation. I think it’d be great for people to hear what you had to say.

JA: Awesome, thank you, Joe. I really appreciate it.

JF: Yeah, you bet! Yep! Take care, Joe.

JF: Thanks again for joining us on another On Point with Korem, and if you liked today’s podcast please leave a comment in the comment box where this podcast is posted. Which could be Apple podcast, Google podcast, Spotify or YouTube. I hope you’ll join us next time for another On Point with Korem, where we’ll get On Point.