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Barbara E. Kahn is an internationally recognized scholar whose extensive research on variety seeking, brand loyalty and retail assortment issues has provided marketers a better understanding of the consumer-choice process. In January, Kahn returned to the University of Pennsylvania to serve as the director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center at The Wharton School.

Kahn had spent 17 years at Wharton before leaving to serve as dean of the University of Miami’s School of Business Administration, where she launched new global initiatives and academic programs, attracting top faculty from some of the world’s leading business schools and establishing new partnerships with the business community.

Your areas of expertise include retail marketing, brand loyalty and consumer choice. Did you ever have a retail job?
After graduating with an undergraduate degree … I worked in advertising and public relations, and many of my clients were in retailing businesses. I became interested in their problems and in creating effective marketing strategies for them.

There was a tendency to design in-store promotional materials that met our own criteria in terms of aesthetics and messaging, but our most successful campaigns were those that really captured the consumer’s point of view. Of course, that insight learned many years ago in the field is the crux of customer-based marketing strategy.

How did you transition to the field of retail marketing?
I started undergraduate study as a mathematics major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. [After two years] I transferred to the University of Rochester as an English Literature major. Ironically, the combination of the quantitative skills that I picked up at RPI and the communication/writing and theory building skills I picked up at the University of Rochester served me very well in my ultimate career in marketing. Marketing is very much a blend of quantitative analysis and qualitative and strategic insights.

In graduate school, I focused my research on understanding how consumers make decisions, why they buy what they buy. I studied brand loyalty, variety seeking and the design of product assortments — all issues that are very important in retailing. I also co-wrote a book on the supermarket industry called Grocery Revolution: The New Focus on the Consumer.

Is there a “typical” day in the life of a marketing professor?
Every day is different and it’s not a profession for those who crave structure. The job consists of four main activities: research, teaching, business-related activity and administrative service.

Each day begins with deciding, “What do I feel like doing today?” Do I feel like designing an experiment to test my research hypotheses, do I feel like writing a paper or analyzing data? Perhaps it will be a day that I meet with people from the industry and try understanding their perspectives and problems. Or maybe today will be the day I develop new examples and concepts for class.

Is there one thing you’d still like to accomplish personally or professionally?
I’d really like to see the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center become a valuable global resource for the retailing industry. We have wonderful students who can become the future leaders in the business and we have wonderful faculty and affiliated scholars who can help develop the next new brilliant innovation.

What’s motivating or inspiring you either personally or professionally?
I’m motivated by the desire to make a difference in the business world, in the lives of my students and to create new knowledge that is both creative and useful.

On your wish list?
I love fancy electronics. I want an iPad 2.

If I was not a marketing professor …?
I’d be the chief marketing officer for a creative retailing or branding firm.