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story.lead_photo.caption Clint Johnson, interim director of the McMillon Family Retail Innovation and Technology Lab, describes a robotic shopping cart, shown to the right of him. - Photo by David Gottschalk

FAYETTEVILLE -- The shopping cart of the future has found a temporary home in a former convenience store attached to a parking garage at the University of Arkansas.

Photo by David Gottschalk
Clint Johnson, interim director of the McMillon Family Retail Innovation and Technology Lab, demonstrates the speed of a Digimarc bar code scanner.

Dash, an automated shopping cart, is a long way from home after being created by New Jersey-based Five Elements Robotics. But the company's first prototype has been placed in the eager hands of the McMillon Family Retail Innovation and Technology Lab, where Arkansas students plan to conduct tests with the robotic cart and offer feedback for the company over the next several months.

"The students are going to basically hack it," said interim director Clint Johnson, who joined the University of Arkansas staff earlier this summer. "They'll develop new functionalities, test it out on campus, test it with millennials and identify new user experiences."

The hands-on work is part of the mission of the interactive space, which was named after Wal-Mart Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon and funded by a portion of a $1 million donation he and wife, Shelley, made to the university in 2014. Students have been getting a real-world look at innovation in retail in the 1,800-square-foot lab located on the south side of campus since last spring, but the place better known as the McMillon Innovation Studio officially opened this month.

The studio will be available to students across campus as part of the goal of immersing them in retail technology and innovation, connecting them directly to innovative companies and encouraging collaboration across the campus. While much of the studio remains a work in progress, Johnson said one of the most important aspects in innovation of any kind is simply starting and has set a lofty goal for a space that will serve as a testing ground for retail technologies.

"Our purpose, our vision is to be the retail innovation studio of the academic world," Johnson said. "That's what we're shooting toward. Why shouldn't we?"

Dash is one of four primary projects the students are exploring for now, according to Johnson.

The studio also is partnering with United Parcel Services Inc. to build a bank of lockers in locations around campus in order to test the feasibility and practicality of having products delivered by drones or other means.

Arkansas-based Magic Dirt -- a startup that produces sustainable organic potting soil -- will work with a group of students to develop a supply chain network as well as e-commerce and social media campaigns.

Others are working with Smucker's and Digimarc, who have partnered to produce and test labels that contain invisible bar codes that allow consumers to scan items with their smartphone to learn more about the product.

"When you have an independent partnership, especially academic, they come in with no bias of any kind so they can do real studies, independent of us and our influence, and then share that with the market," said Sean Calhoon, Digimarc's vice president of product management. "It's invaluable for us to have these kinds of relationships."

The projects are in addition to ongoing work with Estonia-based Starship Technologies, which decided earlier this year to partner with the studio to test its delivery robot in Northwest Arkansas.

The robot, which has been touted as an innovative solution for last-mile delivery, rolled around Fayetteville and other parts of the country with the help of UA students throughout the summer. Johnson said two students are working with the company to set up offices in San Francisco this semester.

Not for the books

"It is very hard to teach innovation from a textbook," said Matthew Waller, dean of the university's Sam M. Walton College of Business. "So the McMillon Lab is a way to very clearly teach innovation in a practical way."

Waller said the space became available when the convenience store operated by the university's bookstore closed last year. There were plenty of on-campus suitors vying for the building, which is located in a high traffic area. But officials awarded it to the College of Business after a proposal to turn the area into a retail and technology innovation lab.

Sue Sedberry was the original director and led the group through its first few months, putting together what she described as a kitchen of the future. Sedberry also was the driving force behind the university's partnership with Starship Technologies, persuading the company to test its robot in Fayetteville.

Sedberry left for another position in the summer and the school tapped Johnson, a University of Arkansas graduate, to build on the early progress. Johnson worked for Wal-Mart for 12 years, including seven with its innovation team.

"I've always wanted to work in academia," Johnson said. "To me, it's a perfect fit. You get to work with students, you get to see the spark and, personally, you get to play with cool stuff."

While the studio is part of the University of Arkansas' business school and Center for Retailing Excellence, Waller and Johnson stressed it is not limited to those students. Collaboration is encouraged.

Johnson has interviewed a wide range of students -- including chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, marketing, supply chain and finance -- for projects. He received nearly 50 applications and is putting the finishing touches on hiring between 15 to 20 students for the paid positions.

"It's not just a business student working on business stuff," said UA supply chain student Nathan Spears, who worked with the Starship Technologies team during the summer. "So you get that real feel of different areas a job would have or a business would have. We're starting to get that experience now rather than when you get done with school."

Beyond Wal-Mart

The studio has no direct ties to Wal-Mart. In fact, Johnson said the goal is to be "broader than just Wal-Mart." But the relationship with the retailer is unavoidable because of the studio's name.

McMillon is currently leading Wal-Mart's charge to invest heavily in e-commerce and innovative technology to remain a leader in retail as the landscape continues to change. He initially didn't want his name attached to the studio despite the donation, but Waller said he eventually agreed.

"I said, 'We need your name on it,'" Waller said.

McMillon said in a news release announcing his donation for the studio last January he couldn't wait to see the passion and creativity UA students would bring to the space.

"Customers want a shopping experience that blends seamlessly into their lives, and that requires a constant force on new technologies and services," McMillon said in a statement. "We hope this lab will spark great ideas, create a community around retail innovation and demonstrate the incredible possibilities of a career in the industry."

Dash, the automated shopping cart, is just one small example of those possibilities in innovation.

Johnson said the cart was designed by Five Elements Robotics to bring "dot-com like efficiency to the brick-and-mortar environment," allowing customers to download a grocery list onto the device at the store. The cart then will travel the most efficient route as customers follow behind it. When the cart stops at an item, customers take it off the shelf, scan it and place it in the basket. The technology also enables customers to pay for their products and avoid checkout lines.

Like most projects, the technology will be tested and researched for about six months.

Johnson said the goal is for most projects to span about a semester. Innovation moves quickly, after all. So the plan should give students in the studio a chance to work with different companies on innovative ideas.

"We want to develop and maintain a pipeline of companies that are interested in coming in as well as a pipeline of interested students," Johnson said. "So we'll learn from these four that we have in place and we'll adapt again."

SundayMonday Business on 10/23/2016

Print Headline: UA's McMillon lab fosters innovation

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