The University of Maryland Baltimore County Bookstore has curated a collection of creative events that entice student participation throughout the year. With fun games, giveaways, community-generating sidewalk sales and an incredible convenience shop with a diverse selection, every student can find something in the UMBC Bookstore that inspires them to come back. In February, we sat down with UMBC Bookstore Director Erin McGonigle to discuss how she inspires campus store foot traffic with bookstore events and marketing.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at the UMBC Bookstore.
I love UMBC in general. My mom started working on campus in 1992 and my aunt is one of the first people to graduate from the university. So UMBC has always been part of my life. I tell people that I grew up on campus. I would come to campus with my mom. I did summer camp on campus. I went here as a student. In fact, I worked here in the bookstore briefly while in school. I always said that when I grew up, I was going to work at UMBC.
So, when a position in the bookstore opened in 2010. I applied. I came here and fell in love with the staff and the job. I love that every single day a new challenge awaits me. You never have the same day twice. You get to constantly learn new things. I love to challenge myself to learn new things and I have done that here.
I have moved into different positions in the store and learned about the different jobs in the store. I went from basically a cashier to marketing and inclusive access manager and now I am the director. In my new role as director, I am still growing and learning. I am also taking some management graduate school classes and expanding my learning. Every day is a new day, and it never gets boring.
I am still very involved in our marketing and social media presence. That has kind of been my baby. Even when I’m at home, I’m on UMBC’s social media. Sharing articles and re-tweeting. It’s just part of what I do. I don’t think I’ll ever release that fully.
What do you think has made the biggest difference in the store’s marketing?
When I took over the marketing position, it also came with the website. Our school does a student survey and shares any comments that are relevant to our department. Students said that our website was outdated. So, that became a priority for me, but I had never done a website before. I worked with our MBS inSite rep, but I knew it would be better if I could update our site, so we didn’t have to have someone else do it for us.
I ended up taking some classes in coding. I learned a lot and was able to apply that to. Like now, our front page is more graphic based than anything. Students come to the site and they can easily find events and sales, grad info, or whatever they need. They can just click, and it takes them there.
Everything on the site is within inSite’s parameters. Before, we had more canned elements. Now, we’ve done more complex coding and have really elevated our site. I call my inSite rep and say “This is what I want to do and what I want it to look like. Here’s the sandbox, can you go in and look at it to make sure it’s right.”
Students expect websites to all be state of the art. Responsive Web Design, user-friendly on mobile, all of that has to be part of your site. They don’t want to go on a website that looks like the 1990s. They want a fresh, slick design. I think taking the class to get a better understanding of coding really helped improve our site.
The other important part of our store’s marketing is social media. That’s where all the students hang out. We really wanted to grow that presence — especially Instagram. We get the most student interaction on Instagram right now. With Facebook, we get mostly faculty and staff or alums who are about my age or older. Not a lot of student interaction on our Facebook account, though. Our Instagram account is really where we get to engage students. That’s where we are seeing the most growth.
What’s your approach to social media?
We use Hootsuite to manage everything. Hootsuite really helps you manage all of your accounts in one central area. It’s pretty easily learned. You don’t have to know a lot about social media. If you aren’t the type who walks around, snaps a picture and uploads it right then and there, then it’s a great tool to schedule releases throughout the day. We kind of do both.
My student worker will set up an entire week of posting. And then I will also go on and share posts as they come up. I might share a new product we just got in the door, or I can reshare content posted by another department on campus to stay engaged with other areas. It’s also important to build social media rapport with other departments on campus.
We have a social media advisory group on campus, and we are part of that. The group talks about everything that is happening in general and then we share each other’s content — which really helps us get information out there. So that’s another important part. If you have social media or are about to start it, meet with the person on your campus who is running your campus social media. They can really help drive people to your page.
Because we get the most student engagement on Instagram, we focus a lot of effort there. One thing I have noticed is if we do a funny GIF, it tends to get more love than just an image of our sales stuff. So, I’ve asked our students to do more fun, interesting things on that channel. GIFs or videos catch student attention more than a print ad. Obviously, we still post the print ad because we can share more information in the print ad. But we hope that students see the funny GIF and it inspires them to come to our website where they can get the information they need.
What kind of events does your store host?
One that’s really popular is our annual spring egg hunt. When it started, we were hiding 20 eggs. Now, we hide 50 because so many come to participate. Inside each plastic egg is a letter that corresponds to a prize. Last year, we went through 49 eggs in 45 minutes. I think the most fun part of this event is that there are always one or two eggs at the end that nobody can find. Sometimes a student has picked up an egg and moved it, so no one really knows where they are by the end of the day. All of the associates have to hunt throughout the store to find the missing eggs.
We coordinate a Late-Night event with our Student Event Board. They have carnival games and lots of attractions. We keep the store open late for the event. We post fun questions and fun activities on Twitter and Instagram. People have a certain amount of time to be the first person in the store to do whatever the post says. So, they might be challenged to do the chicken dance in the store or balance a basketball. That kind of thing. Then they will win a prize. It really boosts our social media following at the beginning of the semester. It also helps the students find the store. We actually end up doing a lot of sales that night, while people are waiting for the next post to release.
We also celebrate a lot of the random national days. They are pretty trendy. Like we did National Umbrella Day. It rained on that day, so it was actually perfect. If they purchased a certain amount in the Yum Shoppe, they would get a free Coca-Cola® umbrella. That was pretty popular. We did Cherry Popsicle Day as well. We had a student walk around campus and give away a popsicle that had a coupon attached for the Yum Shoppe. Then we tracked how many coupons were used in the store.
We’re also starting a game that is a play off of Bingo called Yum Shoppe Addict. So, we are creating Bingo cards with items they can get in the Yum Shoppe. We’ll select an item of the day and when students come in to purchase that item that day, they get a stamp. Each stamp level will unlock a different prize.
We also have an indoor sidewalk sale nearly every month. We’re inside a large community building with several student services and a Dunkin Donuts. It works out great, because students come for a coffee and donut then browse the sidewalk sale racks.
Another event we host is the Student Art Inativite. We have an area in the store where a student brings in their art for display every month. The student currently on display has done it once before. He has sold quite a few pieces and the sales go directly to the student. The store isn’t involved at all.
What kind of merchandise is included in the sidewalk sale?
Normally, we pull stuff from our clearance racks and mark it 50 percent off. But we are trying something new. With our last sidewalk sale, we used price points. Everything was simply marked $10, $5 or $1. A lot of what I’ve read lately suggests that students prefer price points. They don’t want to do the math in their head.
Are all of your events pretty well established or do you try to introduce new events throughout the year?
We are always trying new things. We did our first Chopped Event in February. We called it Chopped in the Shoppe. We had 11 students sign up through a Google Doc we created. Only nine could participate, but we put the rest on a waitlist in case someone had to drop out. We wanted to start small and get a feel for how the event would go.
Chopped in the Shoppe was inspired by the Food Network show, Chopped. On Chopped, contestants get a basket of items and have to prepare creative and delicious dishes. We did ours a little different. Contestants picked three items they could get in the YUM Shoppe to elevate their ramen noodle dish. Then they had a set time to make the dish before it was judged by two staff members and a student judge. The judges looked for creativity and plating consistency.
About 20 people came into the store just to watch it. Two learned about the event on Facebook because I shared it. I know a lot of people on campus, so I usually share store stuff on my Facebook page, too. I ended up being an influencer.
We have a student marketer doing his internship through the bookstore. We created this event together. It’s something I always wanted to do, so I brought it up with him. He said, “That would be awesome!” So, I said, “Okay. Run with it.”
We plan to do it again and tweak it to keep the event fresh and apply what we learned. Students loved it. The students participating had a lot of fun. They really went for it. My marketing student took video, I took video, one of my staff members also did video and our store cameras caught a lot of the action, too. So, he is going to take the videos and make an “episode” with commercials for the products they were using.
We’ll probably post it on YouTube. We will definitely put it on our webpage and share snippets on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
How do you measure the success of your events?
It depends on the event. Yes, sales are important, but also, I feel that we’re in the business of customer service. It’s important to just be able to have fun with the students and engage them in more than just a retail way.
We want to host events that students want to come to. The focus isn’t necessarily about buying stuff. I’m all about generating foot traffic. When you have people coming into the store for events like this, it should turn into sales.
Ultimately, how we measure an event’s success depends on the event. Like our Late-Night event is for awareness. We want people to know where we are and what we have to offer. The giveaways are all stuff that we sell. So, if they don’t win, but really want it, they can buy it. With this event, I measure participation and social media interaction. I compare the participation on posts about that event to our average social media interaction. If this is getting more than our average, I consider that successful. If engagement levels were kind of normal for anything we post, then maybe it’s not an event we want to do again.
What kind of advice would you give other college stores looking to increase student engagement?
Try anything. Be willing to try everything. You never know what will be successful if you don’t try it. And, have fun. Having fun is the most important part.