Higher ed retail: More in store
Students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County start each fall with a scavenger hunt, fanning out across campus in search of clues that lead to a prize book bag filled with college merchandise.
A special VIP night—featuring live music, a photo booth, free food and school pennants—plus a Texas-themed escape room—welcome Texas A&M University freshmen.
Sound like events organized by the student activities office? They are actually sponsored by a separate and growing presence—the campus store.
Online exclusive: Keys to success with campus store promotions
As textbook sales have declined, campus stores are relying on promotions to attract students who might not otherwise have a reason to visit. The wave of special events continues year-round in an attempt to drive business beyond the pre-semester rush.
“Stores have to reinvent their economic model going forward,” says Robert Walton, chief executive officer of the National Association of College Stores (NACS). “It’s a continuous pressure.”
Staff at the University Book Store at the University of Wisconsin-Madison find they “definitely have to drum up new promotions and just fun things that will keep people coming into the store,” says Erin Lambert, marketing supervisor of the store, which offers events such as Dog Day and Hug a Tree for Charity to draw in students.
Campus stores now regularly offer social events for students and the wider community, using promotional sales—advertised on social media, radio and television—to pick up the slack when business slows after classes start.
Turning a new page on store promotions
With textbooks no longer their main revenue category, campus stores have for several years been devoting more of their retail space to branded merchandise and
The challenge for store managers: Attract customers for these products throughout the semester.
“Once students are in the bookstore and they notice all of the new apparel and merchandise, they are really excited about it,” says Monika Samuelsson, director of retail partnerships and marketing at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, which has a Barnes & Noble College-run operation (located at the bottom of the mountain on which Lehigh is built).
“The hard part is getting them down here.”
Store staff recently launched a weekly T-shirt giveaway and a photoshoot of students modeling the store’s apparel. Photos were posted on Instagram, along with a 25 percent coupon for one apparel item.
Finals week is an opportune time for stress-reduction activities, such as decorating dorm door hangers or munching on free snacks in the store café. During finals at the University Book Store at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, staff members bring in their canines for students to play with.
“If students are coming in for Dog Day, they’re more likely to take a look around the store,” says Kayla Myhre, a store marketing intern.
Another increasingly popular marketing strategy—the loyalty rewards program—comes from retail operations outside of higher ed. This past November, the Georgia Southern University Store launched its U Count Rewards Program, which reimburses students $2 for every $100 spent in the store.
Within three months, nearly 6,300 customers had signed up for the program—almost one quarter of the student population—and redeemed points equivalent to $1,337 in merchandise, says Carlita Slatky, director of retail services at the university store.
“We may not be able to compete with Amazon in any shape or form, but we can do this for our students. It’s a tangible asset for them.”
Targeting a wider customer base
Converting sports fans from off campus—another prime source of revenue—into regular, loyal buyers of branded team merchandise and apparel is a goal for many campus stores. The Wichita State University Bookstore targeted alumni and local fans of its NCAA Division I teams by running TV ads for its 2017 holiday sale.
“Wichita State has a huge following in Kansas, Oklahoma and wherever our alumni are,” says Andi Stipp, store director.
This spring, through partnerships with local businesses, the store will take its merchandise on the road—in a transit van decorated with the school logo. One idea is to have the mobile store park at a local bank for a four-hour period in the middle of the day and offer bank customers a 10 percent discount on any purchases on apparel.
Just two hours south, the University Store at Oklahoma State University focuses its marketing efforts on e-commerce. The store is leveraging big data and its social media channels to drive customers to its online store.
“Not everyone in the world is looking for OSU paraphernalia, but when they do, we want it to be through us,” says E. Mitchell Kilcrease, assistant vice president and director of the Oklahoma State University Student Union. “We own that market. Our growth potential is in e-commerce.”
The university is joining with various units on campus, including the alumni association, so that the store—rather than an outside vendor—remains the No. 1 seller of team merchandise, Kilcrease says.
One way to achieve that goal, he explains, is to partner with athletics and set up kiosks at football games, positioning the store as the university’s official clothing vendor.
“It’s the same notion of buying local,” Kilcrease says, referring to the hope that fans and alumni will patronize the campus store rather than another retailer for such merchandise. “When you spend your dollars with us, those dollars benefit our students,” he adds.
Using social media to target customers
Leveraging social media to advertise promotions is essential to engaging customers, says Walton of NACS. Many college stores have even integrated social media into their promotional events on campus.
Students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for example, access clues for the annual scavenger hunt on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that lead them to a prize book bag. In a contest, students who predict the correct score of the Super Bowl on the store’s social media platforms each year can win a $25 gift card.
“Instagram and Twitter are where we get most of our interaction,” says Erin McGonigle, marketing manager of the store. Although Facebook tends to attract an older demographic, the team at Wichita State’s store has found the platform to be effective when a specific promotion is structured as a Facebook event.
The store relies on both Facebook and Twitter for its weekly Merchandise Monday contest, in which customers vote on a selection of merchandise items, and then like, share, comment or retweet their choice.
“If you don’t stick your neck out and try new things, you’ll never know what’s going to work,” says Stipp. “You’ve got to mix it up. You can’t remain stagnant.”
The next stage for online campus retail—for stores that don’t already have this capability—is sending out notifications via a store app about special events or promotions. Students at Texas A&M can use their store’s app, for example, to find out when their textbooks are ready to be picked up or when a particular item is on sale.
“We look at it as another tool of our marketing and social media for getting the message out,” says Holley Scott, general manager of the Texas A&M University Bookstore, run by Barnes & Noble College.
“It’s not just a matter of ‘one or done’—that we use only Facebook, we use only email or we use only the mobile app,” she adds. “It takes a combination of things to be effective.”
Sherrie Negrea is an Ithaca, New York-based writer and a regular contributor to UB.