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Liking Your College Store

The future of marketing for campus retail
University Business, March 2013
The U of Arkansas Bookstore, which resides in the 50,000-square-foot, retail-focused Garland Center on campus, uses text messaging and mobile coupon offers to drive traffic. The promotions target specific demographics based on current marketing needs and goals.
The U of Arkansas Bookstore, which resides in the 50,000-square-foot, retail-focused Garland Center on campus, uses text messaging and mobile coupon offers to drive traffic. The promotions target specific demographics based on current marketing needs and goals.

As books become digital and online retailers distribute college branded T-shirts, Pillow Pets, and logo-emblazoned caps, the future of college stores faces many uncertainties. College retailers, however, hold advantages other retailers would give their right cash register for: a captive audience, a well-recognized local (or national) brand, and a steady stream of new customers who have little choice but to shop at your store, at least once in a while.

And, as pointed out by Buz Moser, executive director of business service for Wake Forest University (N.C.), “We have no issue sharing marketing practices in the industry. Innovations don’t stay proprietary for very long.”

The future of college store marketing isn’t about signage or posters on dorm hall walls. It’s about the internet, and right now it’s all about social media.

Service and Awareness

“Social media and the upward trend in mobile usage have significantly affected our marketing strategies,” explains Nakata Dillon, marketing and communications manager with The University of Arizona BookStores. UA uses social media to promote speculation about “secret deals” that drive attention to Twitter and Facebook as customers wait for the deal reveal. Some schools are experimenting with the resolution of customer service issues initiated through social media. And because the primary customer base for the bookstore is local, the original version of social media—word-of-mouth—remains a major channel for marketing efforts. Traditional forms of marketing, including the school newspapers, don’t perform like they did in the past, giving way to more interactive channels.

Email still plays a major role in service and offer awareness. College students all have an email address and, in most cases, the college store has access to those addresses. Inexpensive email campaigns with near-universal primary customer reach provide a basic communications channel for most stores. Email, however, requires caution, as you want to avoid saturation. It is important to be a good partner in any marketing relationship. Good college store practice guides that students will see any marketing communications in a timely manner and that it will provide meaningful content. 

Because of the rise of online interactions, many bookstores are exploring customer relationship management software (CRM). For the first time, college stores can identify customers and track relationships over time. It was previously difficult, if not impossible, to tie purchases to individuals because even credit card transactions didn’t require any type of registration or capture of personal information. Web-based platforms, including mobile sites, ask people to register before they can purchase. That registration is the starting point for a relationship.

The registration of mobile numbers or text-enabled email addresses not only creates CRM records, it also enables text message-based marketing. Text message marketing is particularly good for time-based events like announcing a giveaway at a specific time. Events like giveaways demonstrate how marketing drives the collection of marketing information.

Ben Eisenstein, marketing manager of the campus stores division at San Diego State University, sees these events as ways to encourage people to register. “Only people who have registered their phone number are eligible for the giveaway,” he says.

Representing the Brand

Marketing at the bookstore doesn’t just focus on moving students through aisles of hoodies and bumper stickers. In fact, the college bookstore is an integral part of marketing efforts for the institution as a whole. It represents the brand in a way that the college itself can’t because it can continue a relationship with alumni, and it can expand the marketing footprint of the school to family, friends, and fans who have no access to the academic side of the institution.

“The window to a university” is what Charles Schmidt, director of public relations for the National Association of College Stores, calls the campus store. “It’s often the first place, after the admissions office, that a prospective student and their parents go,” he notes.

For stores fortunate enough to own flexible space, marketing becomes experiential. They can host professional speakers, create meet-the-author opportunities, and act as a venue for community and cultural events. Space-challenged stores may eventually find experience-based marketing facilitated by virtual experience and interactive displays, technologies becoming more common in consumer retail. As college life itself becomes more virtual, college stores may need a more virtual presence to engage learners from a distance.

Investment Payoff

With all of these investments in new marketing technologies and techniques, one would think that connecting revenue to those investments would be critical—and it is. It just isn’t easy. Campus stores aren’t alone in the challenge to tie marketing investments into revenue. CRM systems and online registration help, because they can tie specific clicks to buying action, but more general campaigns still have a hard time recognizing the impact of marketing.

San Diego State’s Ben Eisenstein relies on email marketing because his team can easily track email clicks to buying action. Repeat events, such as sales, also make it easier to make revenue connections based on the year-over-year data that illustrates buying behavior during a promotion.

Wake Forest’s Mozer points out that in all of this, size does matter. Many smaller schools can’t afford full-time marketing teams, and they therefore don’t get the same kind of consistent engagement as do larger schools. And physical space limitations constrain the kinds of programs, if any, a college store can offer.
Because of these constraints, only the larger colleges and universities are implementing the latest marketing trend: the app. Some apps simply tell students how much used textbooks are worth, but others help students acquire supplies or purchase school-ware. Selling back books is an example where a commodity service can lead to a marketing opportunity. Buying into Bookstore 2.0, colleges can private label a buyback app, including a logo, buyback hours, and local book prices, without making their own infrastructure investment.

College stores can prove valuable in coordinating unintentional marketing efforts, turning student lead efforts into money-making propositions. Case in point: As the University of Oregon readied itself for its 2010 Rose Bowl berth, several enterprising students created a video that became known as “I Love My Ducks! I Smell Roses.” The video included footage of the beloved college mascot Puddle the Duck, the only Disney character licensed to exist outside of the Disney cannon.

The use of Puddles, however, requires some understanding and recognition of his legal standing. Luckily for the students, The Duck Store team stepped in and transformed what could have been just another random YouTube video into a campaign. They managed the legal issues, executing an agreement in about 30 minutes. The promotion led to the sale of 90,000 shirts and an exclusive deal for other “I Love My Ducks” merchandise.

In the best cases, marketing reaches beyond sales. The majority of today’s students fall into the demographic known as the Millennial Generation, or Generation Y. This generation likes retailers that connect consumerism to causes. In knowing this about their market, college stores can effectively integrate local issues and needs into their marketing.

The University of Arkansas recently ran an event with Build-A-Bear where bears were sold at a special price of only $5, and all proceeds were given to the University of Arkansas Full Circle Food Pantry. People who built a bear but didn’t want to keep it were able to donate the bears to the Fayetteville Police Department to help comfort children in times of crisis.

Budget cuts at public institutions, the changing nature of education delivery, and technological innovations put college stores at the center of several overlapping uncertainties. School budgets and the ability to drive revenue from new sources will determine how much discretionary budget will find its way to college store marketing, resulting in unevenly distributed innovations.

Large college stores that haven’t already done so will likely evolve beyond the “place to buy books” to destinations in their own right. In-store experiences, knowledgeable staff who can help guide students through the rigors of satisfying professors, and open-source curriculum curation for faculty, will keep these stores as a critical resource.

For smaller stores, marketing internally may prove as much their savior as sales, as they attempt to position themselves as important partners in institutional branding, the delivery of excellence and in community leadership.

One thing will always be true for college stores: Every four years, the primary customer population for every college store turns over completely. Marketing investments that worked four years ago may not connect to current students.

That means listening, the most fundamental of marketing skills, must remain front and center for managers and staff of college stores. Only by listening to customers can the college store and its team understand its customers and the best way to engage, motivate, and delight them.

And college stores also have an advantage over more distant options: be it a latte, a book of love poetry, or face paint. They offer an immediacy not available on the internet—and they provide a nurturing environment students expect of their schools, even if they only visit them at the beginning or end of each term.