Students from all universities and institutes that are NRF Foundation College and University Partners are eligible for the competition. Each team of two to four students develops and presents a proposal to bring a new product to an existing U.S. retailer, which could be an Internet-only retailer. Each team submits a 10-page business plan, intended to be read by the chief executive officer and senior team of the retail company. The business plans should show clear understanding of the target market for the product, trends, competitors, marketing and finance. Each team also submits a 90-second video pitch of the product. Retail executives from top U.S. companies and brands review the plans and pitches and choose three finalist teams.
The UNT team members are Kaitlin Fairless, sophomore digital retailing and merchandising major from Cedar Park; Jessica Lovell, senior digital retailing and merchandising major from Flower Mound; Anakarin Petersen, junior digital retailing major from Monterrey, Mexico; and Marcy Plefka, senior digital retailing and merchandising major from Hurst. Each student received a $2,500 travel stipend to attend the Big Show, the NRF's annual conference, in New York City Jan. 11-14 and present the team's business plan in person before a panel of judges.
The UNT students will compete against teams from Texas A&M University and Texas Woman's University. The judges will award a $2,500 scholarship to each student in the winning team, with those on the second place team each receiving a $1,000 scholarship and those on the third place team each receiving a $500 scholarship.
For the Student Challenge, the UNT students developed a product that is intended to be sold in specialty retailers for the upper middle class.
"We looked at similar products and their price ranges and contacted people within the industry, and were actually told that we needed to price our product higher and load it with features and benefits," Plefka said. "We worked to make it distinctive and something that customers would want to buy at a higher price."
Fairless describes the product as a solution "that you'd buy as an investment and can be customized to individual needs." The target audience for the product is adult females.
The students began working on the Student Challenge in September. Petersen said the team originally had multiple ideas for the product, only to find out that most already existed.
"A light bulb suddenly went off with our idea," she said.
Plefka, who will graduate in a year, said she knew that working on the Student Challenge "would further my knowledge of the industry that I couldn't get any other way."
Lovell agreed, adding that she "learned the actual nuts and bolts of making a product" and is thinking more about a career in product development than she did before she was on the Student Challenge team, even after a summer internship in merchandise buying.
"I learned that buying was analytically driven. I need more creativity," said Lovell, who graduates in May.
Winners of the Student Challenge will be announced Jan. 11 at the NRF's Big Show Gala. At that time, the UNT students' product will be unveiled to the public.
Richard Last, director of the digital retailing degree program in UNT's College of Merchandising, Hospitality and Tourism, said the students "excelled at teamwork, leveraging each other's strengths from discovery and inspiration to research, planning and preparation for judging."
"They even extended their team by interviewing industry practitioners to fill in research gaps," Last said. "There is no limit to what these four students can achieve in their retail careers. It has been a real privilege to observe and advise them."
In the 2013-14 NRF Foundation Student Challenge, a team of four UNT students were named finalists for creating an "all-in-one" shoe for professional women on the go, intended to be sold at Nordstrom department stores. The UNT team placed third.