Why big boxes are joining the college retail scene

New wave of commerce caters specifically to students' needs
By: | Issue: October, 2019
September 23, 2019
SELLING POINT—This Publix grocery store—part of a new wave of college retail—serves students who live in a new residential complex at the University of South Florida.SELLING POINT—This Publix grocery store serves students who live in a new residential complex at the University of South Florida.

A familiar big-box storefront, part of a new wave of college retail, can provide a source of comfort for students and families arriving on campus for the first time.

That’s one reason more colleges are inviting companies such as Target, large grocery chains and others to join the college retail scene.

The stores also provide a new level of college retail convenience for students, particularly as larger schools expand with new mixed-use developments, says Ana Hernandez, assistant vice president of housing and residential education at the University of South Florida.

Leaders at the Tampa institution formed a public-private partnership with Publix, Florida’s dominant grocery chain, to open a supermarket in a new residential village north of campus.


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The university leases the property to Publix, which has committed to hiring students. “Students can live, learn, eat and play, all without having to leave campus,” Hernandez says. “It gives a lot of comfort as well to families, who see something familiar and know students can get food and easy access to a variety of needs.”

Hernandez isn’t concerned that the supermarket will threaten other college retail outlets, such as campus dining halls, which are operated by Aramark, or the institution’s Follett-run bookstore. “Each of them offers something a little bit different,” she says. “We think they complement each other in providing convenience for students.”

College retail shopping shouldn’t be ‘a drag’

The college retail scene provide direct access to a younger batch of customers as brick-and-mortar companies scramble to compete with online retailers, says Dante Pirouz, an assistant professor of marketing at Michigan State University.

Standing out in higher ed

Like retail, higher ed is contending with a highly competitive landscape. Having college retail shopping opportunities can be a differentiator when students are deciding where to enroll, says Dante Pirouz, an assistant professor of marketing at Michigan State University.

“At universities, we are trying to create a better experience and trying to be unique,” Pirouz says. “Retail is a way of making day-to-day living on campus easier, so students can get back to studying.”

“There are a lot of nervous retailers thinking about a new type of shopping experience that doesn’t leave the youngest consumers thinking: ‘What a drag; the last thing I want to do is go to a supermarket or stand in line at a store.’”

Target has opened about two dozen smaller-format stores on or near campuses across the country.

A land swap between the University of Kentucky and a developer paved the way for Target to open a location adjacent to the Lexington campus. The Chicago-based developer also built high-end student housing above the store.

On its parcel, UK is planning to build retail stores, a dining hall, innovation lab space and an esports facility.

A 50-foot medial wall display will provide a centerpiece for a new retail and innovation complex planned at The University of Kentucky.

A 50-foot medial wall display will provide a centerpiece for a new retail and innovation complex planned at The University of Kentucky.

It’s part of a broader public-private initiative to refresh the two main commercial thoroughfares that connect campus to downtown Lexington, says George Ward, executive director of Coldstream Research Park and Real Estate at the university.

Walmart, Target’s chief rival, has been less successful in the college retail market. It has already closed most of the handful of stores it opened on campuses, including at Arizona State University. In the company’s home state of Arkansas, however, students still appreciate its presence on campus, particularly later at night when little else is open.


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“Everywhere to eat on campus was closed,” University of Arkansas student Tyler Fowler told UB about a recent search for a meal after a football game. “We were too broke for Subway, so we went into Walmart and got as much frozen food and snacks as we could for $15.”