O’Brien: Connecting Retailing & Consumer Behavior Students to Today’s Industry

Jerry O'Brien.

Geo-fensing. Facial recognition mannequins. Amazon’s Dash. UberRUSH. These industry trends are just a few of the things Jerry O’Brien is discussing with the media, students, colleagues, and anyone else who wants to “talk shop.”

O’Brien is the director for the UW-Madison Kohl’s Center for Retailing, part of the School of Human Ecology (SoHE). He’s also the lead instructor for the Consumer Science Department’s Retail Leadership Symposium, a course that often introduces students to SoHE’s Retailing and Consumer Behavior major. “It’s a class where students realize ‘this is great, this is what I want to do for a career,’” states O’Brien.

RetailAccording to O’Brien, what appeals to retailing students is the major’s blend of business, creativity, and consumer focus—a mix that sets the curriculum apart from traditional business school offerings. “It’s what I call a left-brain, right-brain program,” explains O’Brien. “More and more graduating students are going on to find employment in product development, working with high-end technology, and doing lots of innovative stuff in an industry that’s moving incredibly fast.”

Currently one out of four jobs in the U.S. is in retailing, with employment opportunities forecasted to increase as web-based sales and social commerce expand. O’Brien is a witness to SoHE’s program keeping stride with the industry while also gaining national attention. “I’m getting a lot of calls from professionals asking about us and telling me that our students rock,” he states. “They want to hear more about what we’re doing here.”

Being a SoHE graduate is something I proudly share with professionals in the retail industry. People understand the high-caliber education students in the School of Human Ecology receive and are excited to work with graduates from such a well respected program. — Lauren Wellenstein, (’15) Consumer Affairs graduate, product development coordinator, Kohl’s Department Stores, Inc. 

Former students agree that the retailing program preps them well for their chosen vocations. “SoHE did an excellent job demonstrating the vertical integration of today’s retailing world, and the benefits of forming strong cross-functional relationships within a company. The business school taught me depth—but SoHe taught me breadth,” reports UW-Madison graduate Benjamin Wood, Data Quality Analyst, Apple Inc.

Another indicator that the SoHE major is gaining momentum is that an increasing number of prospective students are applying directly to Retailing and Consumer Behavior—a big and positive step away from its “discovery” major label.

O’Brien is first to credit the program’s performance to department colleagues who bring their experience and energy to SoHE, including Nancy Wong, professor, faculty director of the center, and respected consumer behavior researcher, Angie Badura, assistant director for the center and staff advisor for Student Retail Association, Dee Warmath, assistant professor and principal researcher, and Nancy Murray, faculty associate, professor, and academic director of the center.UW Kohl Center

Still active within the business, all of the school’s Consumer Science professionals serve as a bridge for retail majors and the industry, connecting students to the center and the Student Retail Association, informing curriculum, bringing industry leaders to campus, developing internships, and organizing student business trips and conferences. Much of this through O’Brien’s home base, in-house Kohl’s Center for Retailing, a hub that works to build synergy between the industry, students, faculty and staff. “The center really takes the student experience past the academics in a way that few other resources on campus do,” explains Retailing graduate Morgan Loomis (’15), a product development coordinator for Kohl’s Department Stores. “I put a lot of time and effort into my involvement with the Center, and it impacted my college career, job search, and now professional career immensely.”

And the industry is excited to connect back to SoHE. “Companies want to hear more from our students,” states O’Brien. “ They’re open to new ideas from this younger, larger generation and want to know what draws these millennial consumers to their brands.” And for more about that topic, O’Brien is happy to talk shop at gobrien@wisc.edu.


Both Jerry and the Retailing Center for Excellence have prepared me for a successful career in the retail industry. Jerry is very dedicated to his role in SoHE and I always felt like he genuinely cared about helping me achieve my goals. The Retailing Center for Excellence helped me gain real-life experience in the retail industry. — Kelly McCamley (’15) Consumer Science graduate, product development coordinator, Kohl’s Department Stores, Inc.

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