The University of Pittsburgh Book Store’s Meagan Sotirokos knows how to find general merchandise that sells. She manages Maggie & Stella’s Cards & Gifts, the popular standalone giftshop adjacent to the main bookstore, University Store on Fifth. Ms. Sotirokos has developed strategies that dovetail with millennial and Gen Z shopping habits. An eclectic range of items adorns the shelves: colorful low-cost scrunchies, Lily Pulitzer® handbags, Corkcicle® cooler leather backpacks in seafoam green and more. Her curatorial buying approach helps Maggie & Stella’s deliver the enhanced retail experience customers increasingly expect from brick-and-mortar stores.
We sat down to talk with Ms. Sotirokos about how she identifies general merchandise that drives campus store relevance.
Is your approach to merchandise shaped by affordability?
More than that. I try to capture items that everybody would want. I’m not trying to be so demographically specific – like restricting myself to students or things under $20. I have hair ties for $2 in varying colors, and I have high-end wedding gifts that cost $200. That’s probably the highest price point. I don’t have a lot of those things, but I also don’t have a ton of square feet. I try to use variety.
How do you get customers interested in new merchandise?
I do a monthly event called a Sip & See. We sell gourmet tea and food, so we plan a food and tea tasting every month. Then, we have a vendor come in, feature their product and talk about it. I have customers that come every single month for that.
Have any vendors been especially popular?
I had a woman who sells local honey recently. She had a great event with lots of samples, where she talked about how they get their honey. That was super popular. And I just had a vendor who offered exfoliation treatments. That went well, too. Her product was on the pricier side, about $30, but we still sold several kits.
What advice would you give other campus stores about hosting events that create buzz?
Try to garner feedback from social media. That way you can glean information about what your customers might want for free. I’d also recommend creating a survey with an incentive for filling it out. We moved to this location about two years ago. I gauged what kind of products people wanted and what kind of events people were looking for by sending out two surveys prior to opening. We incentivized them with a contest for a $20 gift card. You don’t have to spend a ton a money to get a lot of responses.
How long was the survey?
Maybe five to 10 questions. I wanted it to be short and sweet.
What kind of information can a merchandise buyer find on social media?
What people are asking for. Students are into social media. They’ll make requests on your store’s page. And you can also see what students might say they want on other college stores’ social media pages.
We’re doing polling now on Instagram, too. That feedback is really helpful. I also have a wish list in the store that I keep on file. If anybody asks for something I don’t have, I always write it down.
Have you found items through social media research that turned out to be popular?
Hair-ties. The demand for our hair-tie sales has been insane. I brought them in from a wholesaler in California about five months ago and have sold, since then, at least 1,200 units. And they’re just scrunchies. But they’re wildly popular, because they’re designed to be everything and anything customers want: leopard print, plaid, gingham. We got velvet in for the holidays. They’re fun and they retail for $2 to $4.
We post them on social media. That brings a lot of people in the door, not just students. We get people of all ages. I just had an older woman in today. She was in her 60s or 70s, and she was so excited about the scrunchies. She couldn’t stop saying how much she loved them. I love when you can make someone happy like that. It really brightens my day.