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Reimagining the retail experience: Ivey’s Systems Innovation Challenge

Apr 4, 2024

Systems Innovation Challenge winning teams at Walmart Canada's headquarters

All of the finalist teams at Walmart Canada's headquarters in Mississauga

Whether it’s e-commerce growth, supply chain disruptions, or shifting consumer and employee expectations, the retail world is changing like never before leaving retailers scrambling to find creative new ways to attract and retain customers.

But thanks to a collaborative problem-solving exercise where teams of university students were challenged to reimagine the future of retail, one of Canada’s largest retailers has some bold new ideas for drawing customers, nurturing staff, and making an impact in the community. 

It was all part of the 2024 Systems Innovation Challenge from Ivey’s Innovation North in collaboration with Walmart Canada where university students across Ontario came together to analyze problems affecting retailers through a broad system-wide lens.

The goal of the initiative was to introduce the students to systems thinking, which is a big-picture approach to solving problems that considers how interventions affect the whole system, and challenge them to use it to analyze some real-world critical issues. In total, 185 students from nine universities across Ontario participated in the two-part Challenge that ran January-March.

Envisioning a new retail landscape

Part one, the Nurture stage, in January and February, included workshops and a Studio component where the teams applied their learnings to the retail problem of product returns. In part two, the Navigate stage, in February and March, five finalist teams moved on to a challenge that involved assessing the overall retail situation and making some specific recommendations for Walmart Canada. Walmart Canada asked the students how it could build community through retail so customers would not see its stores as places to buy products, but also as places that meaningfully support community needs. The five finalist teams came from DeGroote School of Business, Ivey, Rotman School of Management, Schulich School of Business, and Telfer School of Management/University of Waterloo and had virtual sessions with Walmart executives before beginning their analysis. Their discussions included everything from workforce trends to the changing face of Canadian society.

Three teams were declared winners, each in a different category, after presenting their ideas to leaders at Walmart Canada at the company’s headquarters in Mississauga on March 22. The winning teams are:

  • Most feasible idea ($5,000) – Schulich School of Business (MBA students Ankita Sharma, Menka Ahlawat, Pallab Kumar Doley, Nikita Prabhu, and Ashwin Vignesh Rajagopal);
  • Most creative idea ($5,000) – Rotman School of Management (MBA students Armanda Iuliano, Camilo Gonzalez, Derek Leung, Sandra Villasenor, and Sirun Wan); and,
  • Most scalable idea ($5,000) – Mixed team from Telfer School of Management (PhD students Shirin Biglari, Meraj Bousaki, Sneha Pujani, and Wrenford Thaffe) and the University of Waterloo (Masters student Mithara Fonseka).

From transactions to trust: building community connections

Mazi Raz, MBA ’05, PhD ’14, an assistant professor of strategy at Ivey who is leading the Challenge along with Innovation North Founder Tima Bansal, said he was impressed by all of the ideas. Raz said all focused on pushing retailers out of just transactional relationships with their customers and toward developing longer-term partnerships with their communities.

“They were all human-centred propositions that recognized the social and psychological desires and needs of communities, not just physical needs,” he said. “And they are sustainable ideas that recognize multiple trends and factors in the external environment. These are not just ideas for today. They are ideas that will last.”

Hussain Bandali, MBA ’11, is Senior Director, Store Layout and Experience at Walmart Canada, and was a judge in the most feasible idea category along with Ivey’s Ju Young Lee (Postdoctoral Associate) and Shobeir Amirnequoee, PhD '23. Bandali, too, was impressed with the easy-to-implement ideas and the students’ understanding of Walmart’s capabilities.

“I was most impressed by the depth of research the teams conducted to understand what programs Walmart has tested and implemented already, not just in Canada but in other markets around the world, and how the proposed ideas were very feasible, tangible, and ready to execute,” he said.

The ultimate prize: a systems approach to complex problems

And as for the students – they came away with more than just a cash prize, but also lessons they can apply in business and in life.

“It has been an inspiring journey of new learnings that will stick with us for a long time. We have learned to approach complex problems with humility, embrace ambiguity, and maintain a zen mindset by considering all stakeholders in the system,” said Ashwin Vignesh Rajagopal, an MBA ’24 candidate with Schulich School of Business. “The final round reiterated the belief that, even in the digital era, prioritizing fundamental yet invaluable human emotions can create long-term value for all stakeholders.”

Plans are underway for a 2025 edition of the Challenge, which will be open to university students across Canada. Watch the Innovation North website for details.

See photos of the winning teams below