It’s got to be cool. It can’t be too generic. It’s got to be ultra-convenient, and, most of all, today’s college store must speak directly to the peculiar needs, tastes and lifestyle of today’s diverse student body.
Does that mean it needs textbooks? Not necessarily. Many of today’s most successful campus stores have eschewed the textbook trade in favor of offering customers something they want more: a great place to hang out.
In 2010, the National Association of College Stores, NACS, published a white paper entitled, “Defining the College Store of 2015.” That paper advised campus retailers to shift attention away from textbooks and toward offerings that capture the heart of today’s student, in part, by offering the student a new campus experience.
“Don’t be just a place to buy textbooks or even a place that sells lots of other products, but a store that addresses many of the students’ lifestyle needs as possible – in other words, shift from being a bookstore to a campus store in the broadest sense of the phrase,” the paper advised. “Students are the life-blood of college stores. Not the faculty, administration or alumni, but the students. These other groups are important, but they are not the reason for your existence.”
One campus retailer that embodies NACS’ advice: the Arizona State University Sun Devil Campus Marketplace, where breezy balconies overlook the Sun Devil sports and soft track lights illuminate cozy tables for two or four. Students sample the latest technologies at various computer retailers, snack on polished wooden tables and enjoy a view of the store’s first-floor offerings, which include an ample supply of spirit gear, stationary and gifts. The multi-story complex includes a Grab ‘N’ Go market, an adaptable community room, and a coffee and wine bar called Pitchforks & Corks.
A sparkling arrangement of hardwood and glass, the Sun Devil Marketplace looks less like a classic campus feature and more like an upscale shopping mall or five-star tropical hotel. But instead of modeling high-priced boutique goods, its mannequins wear jeans, tank tops, and denim skirts. The student’s needs and experience define the venue.
Many other campus stores also offer students a unique place to gather, knowing well that it’s critical to give today’s student something that inspires loyalty. Millennial and Gen Z shoppers don’t feel an automatic allegiance to a retailer simply because of its campus location.
“Their digital acumen, price sensitivity and low sense of campus and college store loyalty will make them not at all naturally inclined to choose the college store over other on-campus, off-campus or online options,” said the NACS paper.
Deepening connection with the “life-blood” of college stores means more than reaching out to millennials and Gen Z kids aged 18-24 — so-called “traditional” college students. It also means finding ways to reach “non-traditional” students: those over age 25, those who work 30 or more hours a week, those with families of their own. These students now comprise nearly half the population attending college.
For students over age 25, financial concerns are a major driver. That means they, too, must find something more in a college store than just high-priced textbooks. Some campus retailers have turned to the online bookstore model to offer these students better service, making room in their retail space for the sort of relaxing gathering places they crave.
Retention is an ongoing struggle for colleges with high numbers of first-generation or non-traditional students. Success for retailers comes from speaking directly to this group’s need to take a break from overwhelming schedules and first-year adjustments.
Barnes & Noble College offers VIP Nights and De-Stress events at their bookstores with these students in mind. On VIP nights, the store closes to everyone but first-year students. That allows them to win a place in newcomers’ hearts right away — whether they’re traditional or non-traditional.
“The bookstore today is a central hub and we have a very robust calendar for the year, where we align with the university and what the specific student journey is on that particular campus and host a series of events in our stores,” said Barnes & Noble College’s chief marketing officer Lisa Malat.
The company offers a Career Now program at its stores, which focuses on events, information and advice geared toward helping students begin their career preparation while still in school. Gen Z and non-traditional students are alike in their shared focus on career ambitions. Both regard career as a top reason for seeking a degree.
Millennials, by contrast, tend to focus on personal fulfillment as a reason to choose higher education. Thus, a store that can offer ways to gather, relax, have fun and occasionally make career contacts is likely to find a way to the heart of today’s diverse student body.