College campus retail goes mobile

App store collections, higher ed moves toward expanding into transactional apps
By: | Issue: March, 2017
February 22, 2017

The guiding principle for deploying new technology at the University of San Diego is simple: It has to improve the student experience.

With that in mind, administrators there have developed an app store featuring apps that go beyond typical functions such as viewing course schedules. Two transaction-based features housed within its umbrella mySDMobile app are MyID and Events—giving students the ability to use a phone to pay for meals and tickets.

“We were inspired by the one device that never leaves their side, and that’s the cell phone,’’ says Avi Badwal, the university’s senior director of enterprise technologies. “We have creative sessions and think about how technology can improve students’ success and how technology can improve student life.”

The MyID app was developed based on complaints from students that they couldn’t determine the balance on their physical ID cards until swiping them at a register for payment. Or, they would have to log onto the website and navigate to the “find your balance” feature, Badwal says.

What’s in the app store?

University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt App Store is a collection of 23 apps, including:

  • Blackboard Mobile Learn, for course information
  • Box, for 10GB cloud storage
  • eduroam Companion, for secure academic network access 
  • Guidebook, for conference management
  • Junos Pulse, for workspace access


Now, once logged into mySD, students can shake their phone to pay, or click on MyID, which functions like a digital, all-purpose card for signing into events, making purchases and finding information.

Just as colleges are looking for ways to integrate technology into classrooms to increase student engagement and collaboration, this move toward expanding the functionality of mobile devices is gaining steam. The technology exists—challenge is more a matter of melding it with the business strategy, industry observers say.

“Universities are already responding to the demand, just as retailers are in the general marketplace, and rethinking how students interact with the school at every touch point, from admissions to graduation,” says Donna-Jo “DJ” Pepito, director of research at National Association for College Auxiliary Services. Debited meal plans were the first example of this, and today’s retail technologies “will allow schools to do much more, streamlining retail, administrative and academic engagement,” she adds.

Some colleges have developed campus app stores as a one-stop shop as their collection grows. They also recognize students want to use their devices to make purchases such as tickets for athletic and fine arts events, items from a college bookstore, and food from on-campus dining facilities. So having a campus app store with transaction-based apps is becoming increasingly important.

Yet many schools have not implemented retail apps yet. “We’re likely a couple years out from fully integrated mobile retail transactions on campuses,’’ says Pepito. “Campuses are still determining the resources they have and what holistic mobile apps students want.”

What’s in the app store? (cont.)

  •, for training videos
  • Microsoft Office
  • Overdrive, for library content 
  • Panopto, for video content 
  • Pitt Career Fair Plus, for career fair information

Dipping in with dining

A number of schools have made food purchases their first foray into retail apps. The University of Arizona, for example, in 2014 gave users the ability to place an order from a mobile device and pick it up from a nearby cafeteria, café or on-campus restaurant without having to wait in line. The third-party app, from Tapingo, also uses purchase history to suggest orders.

While the University of Pittsburgh’s IT staff developed the Pitt App Store a few years ago, the food services department introduced a mobile app so students could order and pay for food, says Dan Menicucci, enterprise architect within Computing Services and Systems Development.

Currently there are no specific plans for any more retail apps, Menicucci notes, because central IT has not received any other requests for them.

The University of the Pacific added an off-the-shelf app that enables roughly 6,000 students on its three campuses in Stockton, Sacramento and San Francisco to order and purchase food, says Matt Camino, director of ecommerce.

Students can use the app on their PacificCard to manage balances for the meal plan, which resides in Apple’s iTunes and Google Play stores.

University officials decided not to create an app store since they do not develop the apps internally, and are paying licensing fees, so they felt they should reside on the major apps stores, Camino says.

The university generates a lot of revenue via the mobile application, he adds. Locations that accept orders via app have accounted for 20 percent of total orders, but 28 percent of revenue. This means “students are likely to increase the value of their order when spending on the app versus talking with a person,” he says.

What’s in the app store? (cont.)

  • Pitt Gameday LIVE, for Panthers sports coverage
  • Pitt LiveWire Gameday, for Panthers sports audio coverage
  • Pitt Mobile, for university guides
  • The Pitt News, for university news 
  • Pitt PS Mobile, for student information

On average, at their “The Lair” location, students spent $2 more per order through the mobile app than at the counter and $1 more compared to ordering from the self-service kiosk. “The mobile app simply drives more revenue,” he says.

Students at University of California, Merced can also purchase food at dining services locations from a mobile app—plus buy books and other items from the campus store using the CatCard app’s virtual student ID. The university doesn’t have an app store per se, but officials have taken a similar approach with a web portal where students and employees can access campus card services and applications, says Abe Cereno, associate director of the CatCard Program and Application Systems.

The university has approximately 7,000 students, and three years ago, dining services wanted to put food carts and trucks around campus. They got bids for point-of-sale systems from various vendors, but the cost—between $13,000 and $15,000 per food truck—was enormous, Cereno recalls. The dining services director suggested developing an app that let CatCard users purchase food with their ID card. The app has an application programming interface (API) that integrates with the student ID/campus card system.

The in-house effort saved the school more than $150,000 on development, plus about $10,000 per year in licensing and support fees, he says. “It gives us better control and the ability to come up with a better design and listen to our users.”

What’s in the app store? (cont.)

  • Pittsburgh Panoview, for Panthers football virtual tours
  • Ride Systems, for bus route information
  • Skype for Business (formerly Lync 2013), for video conversations 
  • Tapingo – Mobile Live, for dining orders
  • Technology Web, for IT services

Buying tickets, permits and more

Since developing the app for dining transactions at UC Merced, Cereno’s office created an event management app that allows students to purchase tickets. A mobileID version of CatCard, to launch in fall 2017, is in beta; so students log into the app and show a barcode to get into an event.

The university plans to power more campus transactions with mobile devices. “It’s not replacing the normal ID card; it’s an enhancement and extension [since] everyone is using mobile. They don’t always carry their ID, but they carry their phone,” Cereno says.

The CatCard office worked with the IT department to develop a mobileID app to pay a student tuition bill as well as parking permits and tickets.

University of San Diego’s MySDMobile app was also developed in-house, using web services such as the RESTful web API and micro-services from Google, Banner, WinPrism, Apple and Salesforce to modify a licensed product from Ellucian, says Badwal. The university website has a page with information on the apps, but they all reside on the Apple App Store or Google Play.

MySDMobile is used by around 84 percent of the university’s 8,400 students per month, and daily usage ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent of the student population, he says. The most popular feature is academic scheduling, and retail falls in the top five.

On tap for this year is developing functionality so students can purchase books from the campus bookstore. While Badwal knows that won’t stop students from buying books outside the university, he says, “We’re looking for way to make [the process] more user friendly. We know that experience sometimes wins over price.”

Retail mobile app resources

Android Pay

Apple Pay


OneCampus from rSmart


Getting started with retail apps

For colleges starting to consider retail apps, Badwal advises digitizing the student ID first, because it’s something students already use in a physical format. He also suggests looking at what types of transactions will best serve students and let that drive the initiative.

“There’s a great opportunity to take data—from academic and transactional systems like food—and mash it all up and change the overall experience,” he says. “That’s what we’re looking at doing—building experiences.”

Esther Shein is a Framingham, Massachusetts-based freelance writer