UW-Stout News Story

Retail students gain new perspectives on Kohl’s trip to China

May 16, 2012

For five University of Wisconsin-Stout students it was the trip of a young lifetime — a guided 10-day educational tour of China.

They were moved emotionally by walking atop the Great Wall, walking through Tiananmen Square and experiencing various other aspects of the culture of the Far East. Yet they came home even more excited about what they saw and did relative to their chosen careers — retail merchandising and management.

They went to mills and saw fabric such as denim, cashmere and silk being made. They visited factories and saw sweaters and other garments come together. They learned about the many quality checks involved in manufacturing clothing and the complex international supply chain.

“You come to a much greater appreciation for everything you have,” said Katherine Lee, a UW-Stout senior, from Wausau. “After seeing what goes into a garment and all the logistics, it shocked me that so many people are working for us and value us. It broadens your perspective of the industry.”

Jenna Huseboe, a senior from La Crosse, said the experience is something she will “reflect back on for a very long time in my career.”

The trip was funded by Kohl's, the Menomonee Falls-based retailer. Nancy Murray, professor in the retail merchandising and management program, was offered by Kohl's to join the UW-Madison Kohl’s Center for Retail Excellence trip to China along with five of her students.

UW-Madison sent 25 students and four faculty, and Kohl’s had two representatives. Murray and another UW-Madison faculty member led the academic portions of the trip, with the director of the center handling trip logistics.

A total of 19 UW-Stout students will work at Kohl’s corporate offices this summer either as new full-time employees or as interns in buying and product development. Kohl’s actively recruits UW-Stout retail and merchandising management majors and other students.

The five students on the China trip were selected after they applied and were evaluated by Murray and Kohl’s. Huseboe and JoDee Martin, a senior from Wittenberg, graduated Saturday and have accepted jobs with Kohl’s as merchandise analyst trainees. Lee and Kari Holte, a junior from Eden Prairie, Minn., will be Kohl’s product development interns. Tiana Theiss, a senior from St. Paul, has a summer-fall internship as a merchandise planner with Disney in Buena Vista, Fla.

“I can’t wait to start (my internship),” Lee said. “(Through the experience in China) I’ve gained a lot of insight into what the position will be about.”

Each student received two credits for experiential learning. They participated in preparation classes, which included Kohl’s senior leadership presenters, and also presented to Kohl’s executives at corporate headquarters after returning.

In China the trip was hosted by Li and Fung, a company that coordinates product development and the factories used by Kohl’s. Li and Fung employees are in contact with Kohl’s 24 hours a day.

“A team from Li and Fung works only on Kohl’s products from concept to delivery of final product. To hear it from across the world, that they are always in contact with Kohl’s around the clock, made (product development) very real,” Theiss said.

“It was eye-opening to see how much Li and Fung valued each one of their (corporate) customers,” Lee said.

In addition to seeing all aspects of garment production, one day while in Hong Kong the group passed a port. “We saw rows upon rows of containers stacked; our tour guide said 80 to 90 percent of those are going to the U.S., and that’s just one port,” Huseboe said.

One aspect of China manufacturing that impressed students is quality control. At every mill and factory, they saw examples of quality checks up and down the lines, for such things as holes in garments or for needles left in garments.

One factory, L &H Sweater, uses cutting-edge radio frequency identification, a computer chip that tracks every stage of a garment’s life. With RFID, management knows who worked on what sweater at any given time.

“They can use this new technology in ways that make it safer for consumers and more productive for the factory,” Martin said, adding that factories stress quality control to reduce costs.

In the Li and Fung Hong Kong office, students were handed garments and asked to find the defects; they found some but not all. “One was a pair of denim jeans where only a single jewel was missing on the pocket. If you find that in the stores, the retailer would send it back to the manufacturer. The amount of inspection that the garments go through to ensure there are no defects is amazing,” Theiss said.

Students were impressed with the working conditions in the factories, which ranged from 16 to 300 employees.

“The friendliness and cleanliness of the environments completely changed my negative perception about what factory workers’ lives are like. People aren’t slaving and sweating. The factories are bright and clean,” Huseboe said, adding that workers weren’t dressed in uniforms but often in fashionable clothing.

In class students learned about the importance of recognizing a good work culture, and Lee believes she witnessed that. “It’s not just about the garment itself but how they treat their employees. We learned about the rhythm of the factory; a lot of the factories that we saw had good rhythms.”

Students said the experience reaffirmed their choice of majors and broadened their views of the industry.

“Stout does an awesome job of offering these experiences outside the classroom, especially in the retail program,” Martin said. “The new perspectives that I gained have made me a more well-rounded person and will continue to positively impact my future.”

For details on the retail merchandising and management program, click here.

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