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Professor Lorrisa Dilay browsing The Boutique
Professor Lorrisa Dilay and her students launched an e-commerce site for The Boutique as part of their curriculum. (Photo: submitted)

Nov. 5, 2020

Seneca’s on-campus clothing store, The Boutique, launched its e-commerce site this week in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With this site, Seneca's School of Fashion is the first among Canadian fashion schools to offer an innovative real-life lab experience for students in the age of online learning and commerce.

“COVID pushed us forward,” said Professor Lorrisa Dilay of the School of Fashion. “I love being with my students on campus. But every retailer is digital now, and if you are not, you are kind of nowhere. It’s the new baseline for the industry and it needs to be the new baseline for our curriculum.”

The School of Fashion began looking at taking the retail learning lab online last year to address new retail challenges in the fashion industry and meet emerging demands for skills among sector partners. This fall, 42 second-year Fashion Business and Fashion Business Management students have been working behind the scenes with Ms. Dilay to set up, market and launch The Boutique e-commerce site as part of their capstone project.

Students are assigned to 10 different teams, from buying and inventory to finance and analytics. With everything done digitally, including trend research, analysis and visiting a virtual showroom, students took on a variety of roles to learn about e-commerce retailing as part of their curriculum.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Janaina Nascimento, an international student from Brazil and a member of The Boutique’s buying team. “We looked at photos and watched videos of the merchandise. We decided everything online. I don’t think we are losing anything. It’s just another way of learning.”

After practising law for 10 years, Ms. Nascimento came to Seneca to start a new career in fashion business.

“I think the online store is better than the store on campus,” she said. “It’s 24-7. You can always go there and browse. You never think you want something, but when you see the merchandise online, you think, ‘OK, I’m going to buy it.’”

Maryam Vatani is on The Boutique’s digital operations team that worked with the content and digital merchandising team to set up the e-commerce system. Ms. Vatani had her own clothing store in Iran for 10 years before immigrating to Canada and was skeptical about learning retail operations online.

“If you want to learn about retail, you need to be in the store and interact with the customer,” she said. “You need to learn how to shift them from a ‘no’ to a ‘yes.’ This is what you want to learn if you want to be in the industry.”

However, “the way we are learning right now, it’s real,” she explained. “I’m a mature student, and it was my goal to learn about e-commerce, and with COVID, it really happened. With the online store, you have to think about what the customer will feel when they read the descriptions or see the images. They can’t see the merchandise in real life so you have to describe it in a way that they can visualize it.”

Whether it’s customer experience, buying and inventory management or e-commerce development and analytics, Ms. Dilay says the knowledge and skills students are gaining from running the online store are what employers are after.

“We need to be here to teach our students about not just your traditional bricks-and-mortar store, but also an e-store. We call this the ‘omnichannel’ experience,” she said. “It’s seamless for customers and retailers, and it drives our curriculum forward. We are a specialist in this.”