BALTIMORE – The business students at Morgan State University started class by discussing a textbook marketing case — should an Indonesian coffee company enter the U.S. market?
But when talk turned to business problems closer to home — attracting student customers and grappling with the ethical dilemmas of doing business in drug- trafficking areas — the problems of a worlds-away Indonesian coffee company faded fast.
“We are confronted with dilemmas and questions that other researchers don’t have to deal with,” said class professor Rodney L. Stump.
He said the problems of “urban business” — limited resources, potential drug dealers and customers who may be reluctant to talk — cannot be found in the textbooks. That’s why he began linking his students with urban businesses in 1997.
“Given Morgan’s mission as Maryland’s urban university, we have a certain responsibility within the urban community” to address its unique business dilemmas, he said.
That responsibility led to this semester’s project with Jamal Mercer, a marketing major in Stump’s class who is also a founder of Da Source, a Baltimore business dealing in pagers, cellular phones and compact discs.
Mercer, 23, opened Da Source with two partners in August. The company grew so fast that Mercer came to Stump looking for advice on opening a second location.
“We really didn’t identify our target market,” Mercer told the class last week. “Now we need information on our customers because we want to expand.”
It was Mercer’s presentation that quickly took the students’ minds off of Indonesian coffee companies.
The class will work on Da Source all semester, developing a profile of its current customers and identifying a prime Baltimore location for the company’s second store. They will pull together focus groups for their research and offer business strategies to Mercer and his partners.
Assembling focus groups is just one of the marketing problems that can be different for urban businesses, Stump learned in his first attempt to help market a local company.
Stump began the semester-long projects in spring 1997 when the school was approached by Downtown Locker Room and asked to conduct market research. The chain of apparel and footwear stores has 16 locations in the Baltimore and Washington area.
“We were looking to start some type of initiative in which we could have students do some marketing studies for us,” said Scott Waters, director of human resources for Levtran Enterprises Inc., which owns Downtown Locker Room.
The partnership was a perfect match.
“We have stores that are in the city. They’re in the city. Basically we are an urban retailer and they are the African- American college in Baltimore,” Waters said.
But Stump and his students said gathering research for Downtown Locker Room proved to be difficult at times: Many customers did not want to participate in focus groups or thought the project was really a police sting.
Many times, “you’re trying to define a customer that doesn’t want to be defined or give you any personal information,” Stump said.
The students persisted and, after a semester of research, presented the company with demographics on their customers, their spending habits and product preferences.
Given the students’ success with Downtown Locker Room and other businesses, Morgan State is hoping to turn Stump’s semester-long efforts into an established research center focusing on the unique dilemmas faced by urban businesses.
“Different issues and different hot buttons need to be addressed and explored to understand urban businesses,” said Stump.
He said that students on Morgan’s urban Baltimore campus are able to identify and connect with urban businesses, making their hands-on learning experience even more intense.
Not all of Stump’s clients are traditional businesses. A two-semester project last year looked at low enrollment in ROTC programs at Morgan State and Coppin State College and tried to identify ways to boost those numbers.
With Downtown Locker Room and the ROTC programs under his belt, Stump said he is optimistic about the future of Morgan’s involvement in urban business research.
“We would hope to see in the future that we could take on national projects … with other urban universities,” Stump said. “We could get a more complete snapshot of urban business in America.”
If Morgan did create a research center, Waters said Levtran Enterprises would be back. “We don’t only anticipate it, we’re going to do it,” he said.