To many, the idea of the collegiate bookstore might still conjure up an orderly library atmosphere; a repository where young academics can pick up their learning materials at the beginning of the school year, never to return until they replenish with a new course load. It’s a perception that Barnes & Noble College is changing with its 770 stores on campuses throughout the country.
Having long pioneered the idea of the bookstore as not just an academic, but also a vibrant social hub of the campus community, bookstores have become places to learn, meet, relax and enjoy well beyond the purely transactional nature of the traditional retail environment. “Our stores host literally thousands of events throughout the year,” says Tamara Vostok, Barnes & Noble College’s Director of Consumer Marketing, “and through these events, we’re continually asking the question: What else can we do to make sure students feel welcomed, to help them feel that this store is their store, and that our sole purpose is to make sure they succeed in their journey through college?”
The relationship Barnes & Noble College hopes to forge with its customers starts even before they are accepted, with outreach designed to keep them connected to the campus from pre-college through their alumni years. Connection to the physical store is a large part of that relationship with events spanning VIP Nights to welcome new students, DeStress Fest events with a host of fun activities to take the tension out of exams, and Grad Fairs to help prepare students for graduation. These events have become so successful they have evolved into an essential part of the fabric of student life. In Barnes & Noble College’s own research for example, 71 percent of students surveyed said their store’s VIP Night event made their transition to campus life easier. “The bookstore can’t just be about transactions – it has to be more than that,” Vostok says, “and that’s what keeps us relevant.”
What particularly helps the supportive nature of these campus events is their relevance to students and the campus community. Vostok points out that every store event is designed to be hyper-local, with Barnes & Noble College’s home office providing the marketing expertise that can be customized to align with the unique needs and culture of the individual college. Store managers and staff have flexibility in how they can host events, and ample promotional opportunities are offered through a raft of marketing channels, including social media, mobile app notifications, blogging and email messaging, to help get the word out and drive the event’s success.
That formula has produced an exceptional succession of creative and engaging store opportunities. At New Mexico State University (NMSU), the bookstore hosted a Hunger Games promotion where students provided cans of food for a local food bank to participate in the challenge and fun activities, with the lucky winners taking home iPads, while fans recently had the opportunity to meet Bruce Springsteen when he promoted his new book, Born to Run, at the Harvard Coop bookstore. “My favorite times at the bookstore are events like tonight,” says an excited Amanda St. Paul, a student at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), about her store’s VIP Night. “When you come into the bookstore, you don’t expect to see people throwing around a football in the café, but it’s just really a lot of fun,” she says. Fellow TCNJ student, Blaine Rogers agrees. “It’s a great way to meet people, and I think we have a fun atmosphere going here.”
If activities like Hacky Sack and nail painting are not generally associated with the academic bookstore, Vostok says the social nature of these kinds of events doesn’t obscure their academic focus. “We have beautiful stores, which are easy to shop and navigate, and are great social venues to gather, but we’re also a place to learn,” she says, pointing to events such as Career Now, International Student events, Faculty Focus events and orientation, which are all rooted in the store’s hub community.
“We’re about building the relationship and providing the kind of experience our customers want,” says Vostok, acknowledging that the idea of the store as a hub also has a wider resonance for her campus partners. “Institutions of higher education and, I believe our college in particular, have a responsibility for connecting to the state of New Jersey and to the community we’re in,” explains Sean Stallings, Assistant VP of Student and Auxiliary Services at The College of New Jersey, “and the bookstore, and where it sits, allows those two communities to come together.”
The Interim Manager of his campus’s bookstore, Kim Gillespie, agrees. “What’s really important to Barnes & Noble College is that we function as an essential part of the community. We want to have students, as well as members of the community, in our store, mingling and having a great time. We want to make it the social hub for everyone.”