College stores have always been able to offer students and the campus community a more personal experience than online competitors. As more shopping moves online due to COVID-19, how can college stores continue to stand apart? The Morehead State University Store emphasizes community and offers a personal touch to online orders that encourages customers to come back again and again.
The college store has always been a social hub on campus. Shutdowns have made it challenging to foster that sought-after sense of community, but stores like Morehead State University Store are working to elevate their service and give customers a memorable online shopping experience.
“I would say my biggest challenge is not seeing my work people. Bookstore people are pretty social. We’re kind of the hub of the campus. We see everybody. Students, faculty, other departments and now, you just don't see them. So that's just been hard,” Morehead State University Store Assistant General Manager Julie Ferguson said. “Another challenge is that we usually rely heavily on federal and institutional work studies. They are the lifeblood of the campus and bookstore. They keep things moving and grooving.”
Creative solutions to strengthen customer relationships
However, Morehead State University Store has taken the current challenges and implemented fun, creative solutions that welcome incoming freshman to campus and strengthen existing relationships.
“We’ve done some online promotions using promo codes. We had one that was 40 percent off for a week during an Adopt-a-Senior event. I went on Facebook as the bookstore and found a bunch of local Adopt-a-Senior groups in our service region. I introduced myself and the store and offered them the promo code. I let them know we would include a handwritten note in their order and drop ship to the senior. It was a great deal for those with seniors coming here in the fall. People could send merchandise or gift cards to them — something to help make this year’s graduation special,” Ferguson said. “We did a lot of sales during the event. I see it as elevating our service a little bit. It's a little more work, but that’s something they aren’t getting from large online companies. We can still offer that extra personal step.”
The store doesn’t stop with personalized notes. They have also included free gifts with qualifying orders, reminding customers how the college store stands apart from other retailers.
“You know when you buy a new fragrance or something and they include a free gift if you spend over a certain amount? We are also doing that because it is a fun bonus for customers. We’ve been going through our merchandise and pulling out things that weren’t quite right or just didn’t sell very well and turning them into free gifts. Like a hat that didn’t turn out how we wanted it or a sticker that wasn’t exactly right. We use those as giveaways for online orders along with a handwritten note,” Ferguson said. “In May, we did a ‘May the fourth be with you’ event. Every $25-or-more purchase got a free Star Wars themed gift. For whatever reason, we had several Star Wars power banks that just didn’t sell. The flash drives sold, but not the power banks. So instead, they became a really nice free gift. Our hope is that customers will remember the extra effort and personal touch we put on every order and want to continue to shop with us.”
Providing students with an online buyback option
Another major store event at the end of term is buyback. Unable to hold an on-campus buyback, the store relied on providing students with an online option.
“Our buyback was 100% online. We’ve had our online wholesale buyback link on our site for as long as I can remember, but this term, we couldn’t host our regular buyback. On the same page where we have the buyback link, we also had our rental return information. That way we could drive all the textbook-related traffic to one page,” Ferguson said. “One thing I did that might be a little different was I used my MBS promo dollars to promote the buyback, let students know about the rental returns and advertise some of our promo codes to help move merchandise. Without the foot traffic we usually get when the whole family comes to campus, it’s important to think about merchandise, too. We have new products coming in for fall and need to move what we have now.”
Communicating with students
Whether driving traffic online or to a brick-and-mortar location, communicating with students is the key to success. The store relies on the same channels, website, email and social media, for both, and they know their strongest influencers are other students.
“We use our website, emails and social media ads to drive traffic. At some point, I would like to further explore our product linking options on Instagram. For now, though, we know that the presentation matters even more than the words. People don’t really read the captions. So, we share pretty little infographics because they do read the image,” Ferguson said. “I always try to do something attention grabbing. Before all of this happened, I had some of our student workers select outfits they liked from the store and then we did a photoshoot around campus of them wearing the clothes. Those are the outfits that have sold because other students saw them wearing the clothes.”
Coming into the fall term, Ms. Ferguson is looking forward to working with the store’s student employees again.
“Student employees are our store’s backbone. We have worked with individual upperclassmen to do a bookstore internship to help them fulfill graduation requirements. I’ve fostered students from graphic design, accounting, computer information systems, education, criminology, biological sciences and even health promotions. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience,” Ferguson said. “Eventually, these students will be in an office setting. We help them hone the skills they need to work in an office environment. Some of our students begin working here at 16 or 17-years-old from our local high school and remain with us until graduation. This year, four long-time student workers graduated. I am looking high and low for new student workers to fill those gaps. The thing I hear most about our student employees is how well trained and flexible they are. We take a lot of pride in that. We don’t pigeonhole them into a single position at the store. We train them in every position and help them learn as many skills as they can, so when they graduate, they have a lot of experience. My kids are highly sought after and continue to make me proud.”