The Oxford Summer School will prepare retail staff for any challenge they face, says Liz Morrell

Inspiring retail staff is more important than ever. As such, the role of the Oxford Summer School remains as key today as when it was first set up to boost the morale of those working in the retail trade in 1923.

The aim of the school is to enhance attendees’ management expertise by immersing them in a week-long programme of lectures, practical sessions, team-building events and networking opportunities. The content is decided by senior retailers. This year, the retail institution celebrates its 80th year of teaching, having run every year except between 1940 and 1946.

Jessops retail director Dominic Prendergast is a former speaker, student and retail director of the school and later this year will take over as chairman from Stan Kaufman, who has spent 20 years in the role.

“I went in 1978 when I was a management trainee at Allders. It took me out of my comfort zone but it gave me confidence,” says Prendergast. “The beauty of the summer school is it tracks different levels of managers. There is real diversity, not only in the attendees but also the companies that come,” he says.

JJB Sports executive director and former Selfridges boss Peter Williams used to send staff from the department store regularly. He says: “As a short, sharp immersion into retail for bright new managers it was a great experience.” Philip Newton, non-executive director of Capital & Regional and former chief executive of The Perfume Shop, is also an advocate. “We would send six staff a year and got great results from it. You would see the cream start to come to the surface.”

David Elliott, managing director of Jersey department store Voisins was still wet behind the ears when he attended. “I had just been promoted to assistant buyer for linens in Debenhams in Gloucester,” he recalls. “I loved every minute of it and of all the retail courses I have done in my career, that one stands out.”

British Fashion Council non-executive director Hilary Riva says: “It was the hardest thing I had ever done but it was an incredible learning experience.”

Newton believes the experience is more valuable than ever today. “It’s not just what you learn but what you learn about yourself. People would come out saying:
‘I didn’t know I could do that,’ and come back and really feel they could take ownership of the business,” he explains.

Prendergast agrees. “Many go back totally fired up. To have that energy and focus in a climate that is difficult is really powerful.”

An invaluable tool

The Oxford Summer School outgoing chairman Stan Kaufman says: “It’s not just about growing the retail leaders of tomorrow, but having retail managers that can manage
the challenges of today.”

When is it? August 22 to 28

Where is it? Keble College, Oxford

Who is it aimed at? Retail managers with potential

Who’s speaking this year?John Lewis Partnership chairman Charlie Mayfield, Asos chief executive Nick Robertson, and Harrods fashion and beauty director Marigay McKee

Cost? £1,550