When it comes to decoding the constantly shifting tastes that propel the food industry, seasonal offerings have their own unique role to play in appealing to customer tastes. In contrast to the anything-the-consumer-wants-anytime-they-want-it approach, limited-time promotions mark the season, enhance sales and provide retailers and restaurateurs with another way to keep their menus fresh and in the moment. Against the extreme backdrop of a winter that has already seen some of the lowest recorded temperatures in over thirty years, Barnes & Noble College bookstores around the country have been serving up some seasonal menu items as a way to keep out the chill and warm their customers with winter delights.
“Seasonal items are unique because they’re only available for a short period time,” says Lisa Shapiro, Director, Café & Convenience for Barnes & Noble College. “That ‘catch it while it’s here’ mindset drives a lot of sales over the winter period,” she adds, “and it also provides another great reason to visit the store.”
A key factor in the distinctive appeal of seasonal offerings is what Shapiro describes as a ‘taste profile,’ a particular flavor which incites a precise craving. As an example, she cites beverages such as the cinnamon dolce latte, which the bookstore cafés are currently promoting throughout the winter. Len Oser has plenty of evidence of those kinds of cravings at the Barnes & Noble College bookstore he manages at Rutgers University. “Winter flavored drinks – anything with cinnamon, eggnog or spice – those have been selling particularly well in the cold weather we’re experiencing,” he says.
It’s probably no coincidence that tastes evocative of the winter months are such popular items as nostalgia plays an important role in seasonal offerings. “We’ll sell soup year-round in Florida, yet we see a sales lift in the winter, not just because of the weather, but because it meets a more nurturing need,” Shapiro points out, “For our students it’s comfort food, reminding them of recipes Mom used to make at home.” For that same reason, Oser says it’s a challenge keeping his popular chili in stock on the Rutgers campus. “It’s not just the weather,” he says, “it’s nourishing, reasonably priced and it’s a convenient choice for our students who want to grab something on the go.”
Limited-time offerings don’t typically translate to year-round sales, and store managers routinely analyze past sales histories to meet the challenges of making sure inventory is fresh, well-stocked and that items are available during what can often be a narrow sales window. Whether it’s pumpkin flavors in the fall, or iced teas and juices in the summer, part of that skill comes from knowing customer tastes and what needs to be available on the shelf at any time. “We’re really focusing in on our student’s trend towards fitness and health during January and February,” Shapiro points out, but she’s skeptical that those sales are connected solely to any New Year’s resolve. “It’s less about a purely seasonal need and everything to do with the importance our students are placing on healthy eating – and that’s a trend beyond just the New Year period,” she says, adding that healthy items such as low-calorie snacks, nuts and many breakfast and nutrition bars perform well year round.
Although the winter can represent a quieter time for the campus, the current weather is sending students to the comfort of their college bookstores. “In this weather, students tend to be indoors longer and use our café areas and convenience stores more,” Oser notes. Yet with many campuses in the middle of their rush season, there are a lot of hungry mouths to feed. “There’s always something happening on campus,” admits Shapiro, “and we’re always watching trends and trying to anticipate our customers’ needs,” she adds. And as the temperature dips, that just may include a warm, and seasonal, welcome at their college bookstore.