Six hundred thirty-three steps from Suffolk University’s front door, a major regional business had unanswered questions.
Roche Bros. supermarket opened its Downtown Crossing location in 2015 as a wave of revitalization hit the neighborhood. Now the area is a hive of activity, fueled by pour-over coffees from the craft roasters on every corner and bargains from trendy retailers like Ireland’s Primark.
So how can a supermarket stand out in this supercharged environment? Roche Bros. worked with its neighbors at Suffolk — leveraging the market research skills of 376 business students — to find out.
Partnering with Suffolk students makes sense for Roche Bros., says director of marketing Dena Kowaloff. Community involvement has long been a core tenet of the company, and leadership is always looking for creative solutions to business challenges. When marketing department chair Liz Wilson asked if Roche Bros. wanted to work with students in the Sawyer Business School the mutual benefits were obvious.
“Suffolk brings the market research expertise,” explains Kowaloff. “For us, it’s exciting to work with Suffolk students because they’re our community, our customers, and they’re the future.”
The benefits for students are immediate and long-lasting.
“Working on a team to solve actual business problems builds negotiation and leadership skills,” says course lead Professor Pelin Bicen. “Students develop an appetite for learning and a problem-solving mindset.”
Every business student must learn how and when to ask questions.
All Suffolk business undergrads — from accountants to entrepreneurs — work with real clients in their business research methods course. This spring students turned their talents toward helping Roche Bros. with two key customer research questions:
What’s the best way to engage college student shoppers in the area?
How can Roche Bros. become the preferred catering vendor in Downtown Crossing?
Students broke into teams and chose which research question to explore. Most picked the more intuitive college student project — but some students were drawn to the business-to-business applications of the catering question.
“We chose catering because of the potential for growth in that market,” said Karen Martinez, a global business and business economics major in the Class of 2019. “We knew our recommendations could have a direct impact.”
The project kicked off with a meeting to discuss the client’s goals. Kowaloff was impressed with the quality of research and questions students prepared. One even quoted a Roche Bros. executive’s recent presentation to the National Grocer’s Association, she said, showing a deep desire to understand the company’s culture.
From there students jumped into the market research.
“Our focus is on the full social science research process,” says Wilson. “Students learn everything from situation analysis and conducting qualitative research to gain understanding of the client’s world, to designing and carrying out surveys, analyzing results and making final recommendations.”
Anatomy of a Business Research Project
Formulate the research question
Gather client and industry background information (literature review)
Conduct in-depth interviews (qualitative research)
Develop hypotheses based on the qualitative research results
Sampling process and data collection
Statistical data analysis (quantitative research)
Communicate research results with the client (storytelling, poster presentation, business report writing)
The 84 teams from 11 sections of Business Research Methods were whittled down to a final eight who pitched their recommendations directly to Roche Bros. The executives — Kowaloff, Downtown Crossing store manager Larry Baxter, and catering sales manager Peter Keenan — chose a winning team for each question.
College Student Market
When the Research Methods class surveyed college students in the area they received some unexpected results. While “grab and go” prepared meals appeal to students, a surprising number are willing to devote time to cooking their own food in their dorm or apartment kitchens. The winning project team capitalized on this data with a “home run” recommendation.
The “Smart Pack,” explains sophomore business management major Daniel Bofise, is a box of measured ingredients packaged along with an easy-to-follow recipe. Their concept improves on the popular Blue Apron or Hello Fresh subscription meal kit services by bringing the boxes to Roche Bros. stores.
“Students can be in and out in 10 minutes and go home with everything they need to cook something new.”
College Student Shoppers: Let Roche Bros. do the Cooking?
Want hot, prepared food
Don’t buy hot, prepared food
It’s not just about pizza anymore. College students who live in suites and apartments with full kitchens are more willing to prepare their own food.
It’s a fresh idea that Roche Bros. has actually toyed with in the past — but never for the college student audience. Kowaloff says that the cross-departmental planning involved in coordinating such a service might be challenging, but the payoff could be worth it to reach students who are learning to cook and willing to try adventurous new foods.
Update: In May 2018, Roche Bros. announced it would debut a grab-and-go meal kit called Just Add Cooking in select stores. According to Kowaloff: “The insights we got from the Suffolk students helped us understand different use cases for meal kits—particularly the opportunity to help young adults new to living independently learn how to cook. That was a big learning for us, and plays into how we message and market the new products.”
Becoming the top catering destination means learning what matters most to the ones actually placing orders. To find out, Professor Bicen worked her LinkedIn network and Roche Bros. reached out to contacts at the Downtown Crossing Business Improvement District to gather meaningful survey results.
“The data showed ‘word of mouth’ was the most important factor in catering preference,” said Martinez.
Martinez’s group delved deep into the data to find out what factors led to personal recommendations. According to group member Chloe Dinh, they discovered ease of ordering was paramount — so the group recommended streamlining menus and having more flexible deadlines for popular items.
Kowaloff and her team “absolutely loved” the waterfall analysis the students did. “They went the extra step to define ‘easy to work with’ and gave us actionable steps to improve.”
The universal recommendation to specialize the catering menus has also given Keenan food for thought. Competitive moves like adding a hot sandwich option to his menu are an easy call.
“It’s something we could implement right away,” he said.
How can Roche Bros. reach new catering customers? Mailing menus isn’t enough.
Catering Decision Makers
Other Employees in the Area
Suffolk students’ research found that decision-makers for catering services are less likely than other area workers to be swayed by mailed menus. To reach them, increasing personal recommendations by improving word of mouth is key.
Roche Bros. executives left the Suffolk students’ final pitches with valuable market research data — and also with actionable steps to increase business immediately, and creative concepts to explore with their teams.
The students gave us great insight into the two research questions and it’s also helpful to have secondary confirmation of some data we’re using and plans we’re already implementing.
Will students see their ideas in action at their local store soon? It’s very likely, say Kowaloff, Keenan and Baxter. Having the students’ recommendations will help the Roche Bros. team build a case internally for innovative ideas — like the Smart Pack — despite implementation challenges.
Bicen knows the experience will impact students long after the semester’s end.
“In a rapidly changing technological environment, cultivating curiosity and problem-solving skills gives our students a significant advantage. They’ll be able to adapt on the job throughout their careers.”
Some effects have been more immediate:
When I started this project I told my group I hated data and math. But over the course of the semester I started to do more and more analysis and I learned I loved it! I just decided to double major in Business Analytics. This project made it clear that using data to tell a story is the best way to build a strong case for a client.