Connecting McGill’s academic community with Quebec’s retail ecosystem

“Our ambition is to be the best academic institution in the world that is dedicated to the future of retail,” says Charles de Brabant, the executive director of McGill's Bensadoun School of Retail Management
Charles de Brabant presenting key retail innovation learnings to SMEs in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec.Rémy Boily, Chambre de commerce et de l’industrie du Haut-Richelieu

The way that we shop is changing, and for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), it can be challenging to keep up with the pace of innovation. But the Bensadoun School of Retail Management (BSRM) is helping them do it.

“Our ambition is to be the best academic institution in the world that is dedicated to the future of retail,” says Charles de Brabant, the executive director of BSRM. “But it is also important be a good local player, and the best way to do this is to go out and be with the people.”

Taking the show on the road

In spring 2023, BSRM held its first regional road show in Vaudreuil-Dorion, and since then, it has embarked on three more regional roadshows in locations throughout Quebec. Another five are scheduled in 2023, and BSRM aims to stage more than fifteen by the end of 2024.

These regional networking events are mostly held outside of Quebec’s major economic centres, and are staged collaboratively with local industry associations, chambers of commerce, and economic development agencies. BSRM road shows connect McGill academics and industry experts with local business leaders and industry players, and have been made possible as part of a four-year, $5-million grant from the Quebec Ministry of Economy, Innovation and Energy.

The road shows are part of BSRM’s wider effort to forge connections with Quebec’s retail community. In the summer of 2020, it launched the Retail Innovation Challenge, a national student competition that assists Quebec SMEs. Now in its fourth edition, with SAQ as the title sponsor, the initiative has produced more than a dozen case studies where student teams generate actionable solutions to help the featured local SMEs succeed in the new realities of retail.  BSRM is also collaborating on a quarterly newsletter with the Conseil Québecois du commerce de detail, and offers executive education for SME leaders.

Quebec is geographically vast, and these events enable BSRM to meet with businesspeople where they live and work. Regional road shows aim to help SMEs become omni-channel retailers, and consist of workshops that showcase the innovative research happening at BSRM. Sessions typically involve between 60–75 participants, and follow a standard format. Researchers and industry practitioners share insights from BSRM’s Retail Innovation Lab, and discuss how global trends could affect Quebec SMEs.

Addressing the practical concerns of businesspeople

The Retail Innovation Lab (RIL) is a partnership with Alimentation Couche-Tard that is housed in the Bronfman building on McGill campus. Customers have an option to use contactless checkout via app on phone where cameras automatically detect a customer’s purchases, and no interaction with a cashier is required. “The lessons we are learning from the RIL are straightforward for anyone within the sector to understand,” says de Brabant.

BSRM road show events also include Q&A sessions that enable members of the business community to glean insights about the specific challenges their SME is facing. Because businesspeople tend to have practical concerns, presentations seek to address topics with clear operational implications.

“They want to get down to brass tacks. And in terms of engagement, these events have exceeded our expectations. They have started a dialogue with Quebec SMEs,” says de Brabant. “We produced a white paper on Key Innovation Learnings for SMEs, and we decided that the best way to connect with the people was – if I could make a retail analogy – to get out of our digital and e-commerce bubble and actually have a physical presence. Going to the regions and talking with people about things that are relevant has been extremely well received by the Quebec government. I think we have found the recipe to do this.”

For Eric Légaré, BSRM programs have been an opportunity to learn from academic researchers and drive professional growth. “I have been very fortunate to benefit from various collaborative initiatives with the Bensadoun School of Retail Management, notably the SME Retail Executive Education Program, the Retail Innovation Challenge, and hosting a Master of Management in Retailing intern,” says Légaré, CEO of Hockey Supremacy.

“Through all these initiatives, my professional development has significantly accelerated. The wealth of knowledge from the faculty is immense. Not to mention all the creative ideas that the students bring with exemplary pragmatism through case studies. All these components have contributed to the growth of my company and myself.”