Roux Institute Graduate Students and L.L.Bean Employees Collaborate to Solve a Retail Challenge

“Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic,” said Stephen Smith, President & CEO of L.L.Bean.

Smith was reacting to a presentation he had just witnessed that was the culmination of a Northeastern University capstone course specifically designed to address a business challenge that L.L.Bean was facing. The findings were presented by a group of eight Northeastern students and five L.L.Bean employees; for the students, this was their 15th and final course before earning their masters’ degrees in professional studies in analytics at Northeastern’s Roux Institute. The five L.L.Bean employees who also participated in the class provided the students with invaluable context and insight into the problem they were trying to solve.

This unique format is one of the outputs of Northeastern University’s hands-on learning model, and is referred to as an “Experiential Network,” or “XN” course. This particular class was part of a capstone immersion, which brought employees of L.L.Bean, a Roux Institute industry partner, into the classroom to solve a challenge or complete a project unique to that sponsoring business.

The challenge at the center of this capstone course? Demand transference. The term, which refers to a customer’s demand transferring from their first-choice product to a similar, second-choice product due to their first choice being out-of-stock, is a pesky anomaly that is hard to identify and can bungle forecasting and lead to the over-supply of those second-choice products. According to one L.L.Bean employee, it’s a challenge that’s been around since the beginning of retail.

The Roux Institute’s value-add is building curriculum that prepares Maine workers for the future needs of our state’s businesses – and this chance to couple employee learning with solutions to real business problems is a great example of that value.

Stephen Smith

President and CEO


To help solve this problem, the Roux analytics students used the skills and knowledge they gained over their 14 previous courses in their professional studies program, while their five classmates from L.L.Bean provided helpful insights and knowledge from their own competencies, which included analytics, inventory management, forecasting, and programming.

The class organized into two groups: one that looked at how to identify relationships of substitutability between similar products, and one that worked on a model that could identify the occurrence of demand transference between those similar products, and a way to quantify that transference. Both groups were able to deliver prototypes of dashboards that L.L.Bean could use to assist their employees in forecasting, customer service, marketing, and inventory management.

Rachael Kennedy, the senior process manager for forecasting and merchandise financial planning at L.L.Bean, was a participant of the class. As someone whose role is directly affected by demand transference, she’s excited and hopeful about the outcome of the project. “Although this course is ending tonight for our Northeastern students, for us at L.L.Bean, we’re thinking of this as the beginning. We’re thinking about all the great knowledge the students have passed on to us that we can take back to headquarters.”

As a teacher, I believe firmly that [experiential learning] is the single best thing we can do for students."

Dan Koloski

Head of Learning, Professor of the Practice

The Roux Institute

L.L.Bean leadership and employees who attended the presentation as spectators were also energized by the outcome of the course and were already thinking of ideas for future XN courses. Maureen Lafferty, VP of Talent, Development & HR Business Teams at L.L.Bean, commented on how valuable it is to have the Roux Institute as a place where L.L.Bean employees can advance their skillsets and careers. “We are always looking for development opportunities for employees that strengthen critical skills like data analytics while providing an opportunity to work on a real business challenge. This was an innovative approach and an incredible opportunity for our employees,” she said.

“The Roux Institute’s value-add is building curriculum that prepares Maine workers for the future needs of our state’s businesses – and this chance to couple employee learning with solutions to real business problems is a great example of that value,” said L.L.Bean CEO Smith.

Dan Koloski, the Roux Institute’s head of learning, professor of the practice, and the professor leading this capstone course, says that this type of hands-on learning is invaluable. “As a teacher, I believe firmly that it’s the single best thing we can do for students,” he said, referring to the pragmatic, real-world experience his students were able to undergo during the course.

It was clear on the faces and in the words of the students and employees who participated in the class that the collaboration was a fruitful one. All were enthusiastic about the ways in which they were able to learn from each other. “I feel so grateful that I got to work with such a dedicated, hardworking, diligent, brilliant group of students. It’s been a blast,” said Nick Mastors, a lead inventory analyst at L.L.Bean and participant in the course.

The eight Roux students who completed the course have officially received their masters’ degrees – many of them walked in the Roux Institute commencement ceremony in June. The L.L.Bean employees are eligible for course credit in the Master of Professional Studies in Analytics program, should they choose to pursue a degree.

Image of the Roux Institute Capstone Immersion class

Participants of the L.L.Bean Capstone Immersion. The class consisted of Roux Institute graduate students and L.L.Bean employees.

XN courses are a unique Northeastern offering and the heart of the university’s experiential learning model, which focuses on giving students the opportunity to use their learning to drive real-world impact. To bring unique and challenging projects into the classroom, the Roux Institute offers XN courses to their business partners. “It’s truly a win-win situation when students are able to apply their skills in meaningful ways, and our partners are able to advance their businesses using those findings and recommendations,” said Koloski.

The Roux Institute also offers custom learning courses for partner employees, including several co-designed data analytics courses tailored for L.L. Bean employees. Read some of our co-learning case studies here.