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University of Delaware - Alfred Lerner College of Business & Economics

By Heather Bender April 10, 2018

As consumers develop a preference for renting goods instead of purchasing them, what marketing opportunities arise?

Will subscription packages of baby and toddler rental items bring down costs for new parents?

Can a rental service for camping equipment give more people access to the great outdoors?

Last fall, seniors in Sharon Watson’s honors strategic management class in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics partnered with eBay to explore ways it could use its commerce platform to drive innovation in and support the transition to a more circular economy, where renting, reusing, or sharing commercial goods is favored over purchasing.

“When Dr. Watson introduced this project to the class, I was ecstatic,” said Harry Chen, a senior honors student with a double major in finance and hospitality management. “We were working on a real-life situation from a top e-commerce company instead of picking a problem from the books.”

Students said that the opportunity to create a market solution for an internet titan was exciting, challenging and even somewhat daunting at first.

“When this project was assigned, I was a little overwhelmed,” said Angela Spadaccini, a senior honors marketing major who participated on the outdoor equipment rental team. “Knowing that we were working with a well-known, successful company was a little intimidating. All of my previous projects had been strictly hypothetical – my critical thinking skills, creativity and ideas never extended past the classroom walls. This project was an excellent opportunity to showcase my abilities outside of the classroom.”

Students were challenged to develop an alternative service model for one of eBay’s leading product categories. Six teams designed creative, socially-responsible solutions, including:

  • A fashion resale app for college students that cuts clothing costs by 80 percent and keeps 3.2 million pounds of unwanted clothing out of landfills
  • A subscription package service for expecting and new mothers renting baby and toddler items, providing a 37 percent cost savings and extending product life
  • A platform for musical instrument rentals designed to circulate 12 million instruments that would otherwise be unused or discarded
  • A system for renting outdoor recreation equipment at a third of the purchase price, removing cost barriers to more active lifestyles
  • A toy recycling marketplace that saves 307,200 plastic toys from the landfill while providing a 50 percent savings for the average parent
  • A system for moving “ugly produce” into the marketplace, feeding 25 million Americans and conserving 1.6 trillion gallons of water

The semester-long capstone project culminated in a live video conference. Each team presented their ideas to leaders of eBay’s Global Impact group, which focuses on how eBay’s business can be a force for positive change.

“I’ve never seen my students as excited about a project as they were after the videoconference with eBay,” said Watson, associate professor of management at the Lerner College. “We had a debrief session to reflect on the experience, and many students said that it was the best experience of their time here at UD, the most relevant to their blossoming careers, and the first time they worked on a project for its own sake, rather than for a grade. Several students talked about the project in their job interviews with great success.”

Kaitlin Woo, a senior honors student with a double major in management information systems and marketing, felt that her work on the fashion resale project leveraged her education while preparing her for entering the workforce.

“Preparing a deliverable for a real-life client was a beneficial experience,” Woo said. “There were aspects of professionalism and ambiguity you do not experience when working on normal academic assignments, especially since the deliverable was set by outside parties, not the university.

“Clearing up confusion was not as easy as attending office hours,” she continued. “Like in the real world, a lot of communication had to take place through email, instead of in-person. In today’s workforce, most companies are spread out geographically, making working virtually a required skill for this generation. While I did not have prior professional experience to draw from for this particular presentation, the project incorporated many of the principles from the core finance, marketing and operations classes I took at UD.”

The collaboration was suggested to Watson by Austin Halbert of ImpactEd, an organization that brings together college students and leading companies to provide opportunities for students to work on real-world projects.

“This project was an amazing example of what can happen when students are given the chance to bring their ideas to the table,” said Halbert, ImpactEd’s CEO. “With each ImpactEd project, we hope to see students growing into professionals as they tackle the challenges they’ll face in the real world. Dr. Watson and her students made the most of this experience and brought incredible enthusiasm from the start.”

While this partnership was a first for UD, the overwhelmingly positive student reaction makes it unlikely to be the last.

“It was truly a transformational experience,” Watson said.