Promotional items can be a very effective way to get your customers excited about an event or offering. But, in order to have an impact, you need to take a few things into consideration. The key, according to Dave McKenna, director of Holy Cross Bookstore, is finding out what products your audience really wants.
For his store, the epiphany came after an on-campus event. The college had recently elected a new President and their goal was to have students lining the road, cheering, as he passed by on the way to his inauguration ceremony. McKenna consulted with a group of students who often help him determine new strategies for his store and they all agreed; t-shirts were the best way to get students to attend an event.
The inauguration committee thought along the same lines and provided free t-shirts to the first 800 who attended. As a result, over 1000 showed up!
“Several people said that the most memorable part of the ceremony was the students cheering and they probably would not have come in those numbers without being offered a free t-shirt,” he explained. “Our store has also given out free shirts in the past and had success, so it was clear that they were the way to go with our group of students.” (Read more about their previous t-shirt promotion here)
During buyback, the store gave out 300 free shirts with the words “Keep Calm and Go Holy Cross” emblazoned across the front. Because the “Keep Calm” phrase has been so popular, McKenna had high hopes that it would be well received.
“A kid said ‘that’s sick,’ as I handed him a t-shirt, and I turned to our buyer and said ‘I think that’s good!’” he joked. “At that point, I knew we had a winner on our hands.”
To advertise the initiative, the store took a unique approach; rather than integrating the giveaway into all of their buyback marketing efforts, they waited until the last minute to make the announcement. McKenna simply sent out an email the day before the buy with the subject line “Free t-shirts at buyback while supplies last.”
“I’ve realized you can’t tell students anything too early; making it unexpected seems to increase the value,” he said. “They all read email on their smart phones, too, so you have to be brief and make the subject line catch their attention.”
McKenna and his staff chose to order the shirt in a non-traditional color; another lesson they learned from the success of the inauguration event. The shirts distributed at the ceremony were red, and students loved the change. Based on that popularity, the store selected a light blue for their buyback shirts.
“The majority of our merchandise has always been in our school colors,” he said. “Now, we’re starting to carry items in different colors. This experience has really taught us what our students like.”
The store gave away the first t-shirt at around 9:00 AM and there was a lull until about 9:35. But, from that point on, buyback was booming. The store conducted what would have typically been two days worth of buyback in just four hours.
“All it takes is about 10 students to like what you’re giving away, and then they do the work for you. They get on Twitter or Facebook and tell their friends, so soon the whole group is at the store,” he emphasized.
The heavy traffic early in the week helped to enhance the outcome of the buy. Their retail buy was up, One Planet Book collections doubled to over 40 cartons and, most importantly, they drew so much student business that an off-campus buyer packed up and moved on, eliminating a significant source of competition.
“It was a huge win, because we were able to buy retail books before students went off campus,” McKenna explained. “Because students were in the store to get their free t-shirt, they sold all of their books early and didn’t need to shop around. After two days on campus, the off-campus buyer must not have been getting any business, and he moved on. It was really great!”
The fact that McKenna sent out a blunt, yet truthful, email about rogue buyers didn’t hurt either. His message was simply “Stranger Danger! Don’t trust a guy buying things out of a van – your mother raised you better than that. He’s not giving you free t-shirts, either. Shop with us first!”
“It actually worked! I think students took a second to think about it and realized it was true,” he said. “Having a rogue buyer leave campus doesn’t solve all of our problems, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction!”
Even better, students seemed to enjoy the experience of buyback. Holy Cross Bookstore was in the process of participating in a Student Satisfaction Survey conducted by NACS, and the ratings increased from last year. That fact was also evidenced by increased merchandise sales. According to McKenna, many students were turning around and spending the cash they received from buyback in the store.
“We give out lots of coupons throughout the year, so it’s hard for us to attribute which are having an impact on sales,” he explained. “But during buyback, you can always tell by the amount of cash in the drawer. We had an enormous amount of cash sales this time, which was great!”
Not only did buyback have a positive impact on sales and customer experience, but McKenna says he also learned several lessons that will help his store improve throughout the year.
“This experience was a win on so many levels,” he described. “It really helped us understand the nature of our customers – what they like and how they communicate with each other. It’s something we can apply far beyond buyback, and we’re eager to see where we can go from here!"