Inspiring Innovation

Price Chopper's Ultimate Innovation Competition culls young minds for solutions to real-world challenges.

Last year, a team of young men and women addressed several executives at regional independent Price Chopper, to propose a solution to a challenge the grocer faces in linking its Facebook fans to their in-store shopping behavior.

The team developed an idea for an application that focuses on the two-way flow of Information between the consumer and Price Chopper. Users would enter their AdvantEdge card number in this application on Price Chopper's Facebook fan page to view personalized promotions and coupons.

What was unique about this group is that they weren't technology vendors, but rather students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's (RPI) Lally School of Management and Technology, and their proposal ended up being the winning entry in Price Chopper's second annual Ultimate Innovation Competition.

“We asked students to focus their innovative ideas around one of the following themes,” says Mark Chandler, VP of supply chain for the Schenectady, N.Y.-based retailer, which oversees the program. “The themes were 'How can we be more helpful to our customers?' and 'How can we form tighter connections with our customers and associates?' Many of the ideas generated from this competition have actually been implemented at Price Chopper, and have paid dividends.”

The winning team was selected from 53 initial submissions, which were narrowed down to 23 teams for the semi-final round, In which the teams were asked to develop their ideas into 15-page proposals for Price Chopper's executive judging panel to review. Seven teams were then invited to the grocer's headquarters to formally present their ideas to company executives. A total of $30,000 was awarded, $7,500 of which went to the winners.

Price Chopper established the competition three years ago as a way to expose college students to real-world business challenges that would complement what they learned In school. “The students have found the Price Chopper challenge to be a great experience, as it gives them a chance to apply knowledge gained in class in a way that can potentially be utilized by a real business,” notes Jason Kuruzovich, assistant professor of Management Information Systems at Troy, N.Y.-based RPI. “It also gives them a chance to attempt to make a business case for a new technology investment and to present to senior company executives.”

RPI has even made the competition a part of its regular curriculum. “We do two projects as part of the course'internet marketing', and the students have the option to compete in the Price Chopper Challenge as part of one of the projects,” says Kuruzovich. “The students get to combine their experience as a shopper with their knowledge of technology and supply chain issues in generating ideas.”

While last year's competition involved approximately 20 colleges and universities around the Albany Capital region, this year Price Chopper expanded it to all of the universities in its trade area, which covers parts of six states and almost 75 colleges.

“We send out a request in the fall, letting them know we're holding an innovation contest at Price Chopper”, says Chandler. “We want them to focus on ideas related to supply chain, merchandising and marketing, information technology, or HR, and anything else in between. And we give them some ideas, we give them some problem statements to whet their whistle a little bit, letting them know that here are some challenges that we have. Sometimes, the professors Invite us to talk to the students in a classroom setting. A lot of the professors use this in their curriculums as an assignment.”

The students must compete in teams of two to five people, and initially develop a one-page abstract. From these, approximately 30 are selected to develop more detailed proposals. To help them do this, Price Chopper makes certain resources available to them.

“They are invited to come into our stores and talk to management about their idea, they can survey our customers on some of their ideas, they may want to visit our warehouse and walk through the warehouse if it involves warehousing operations, they can talk to our IT organization if they have ideas about technology, those kinds of things,” explains Chandler. “We also assign a mentor, so that every one of the teams has a mentor from the organization to serve as their point person for more information. And, of course, we suggest they read the industry trades like Progressive Grocer for information relevant to their projects.”

Reciprocally, PG will begin following the competition online and in print as the student teams make their way from single-page abstracts to 15-page proposals to the seml-finalist presentations, up to the selection of the winning team, which will be profiled In these pages following the judging this spring.

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