In a tech-saturated world, hands-on experiences still appeal to many customers — including college students. In fact, 89 percent of students prefer to shop in store, where they can see and touch merchandise for themselves, as uncovered in “Path to Purchase,” part of Barnes & Noble College’s Future of Retail study series.
A physical presence is key to supporting another important aspect of the customer experience. “Attitudes and Emotions,” the second study in the series, reveals that emotional connections are vital for students. Retailers must understand customer needs and create meaningful, memorable emotional connections to match. Barnes & Noble College combines the physical, brick-and-mortar stores with a strong digital presence to meet students where they are and build these connections. These cross-channel retail capabilities allow the campus bookstore to support and enhance a wide range of academic and social experiences.
Barnes & Noble College is a presence throughout students’ entire academic journey. Brick-and-mortar bookstore locations are part of each school’s physical campus — and part of students’ experiences in much the same way as academic buildings, dorms and student unions. Students don’t just get their course materials at the bookstore. It often serves as a backdrop for group project work, job interviews and coffee dates. It’s where students pick up spirit gear for big games and fuel for all-night study sessions. When they graduate, many have nostalgia for the physical store and the time spent there, making a point to visit when they’re back on campus for football games or reunions.
Barnes & Noble College cultivates these emotional connections by supporting students through major milestones and creating fresh touchpoints through fun events and activities hosted by their bookstores. The major milestone events center on helping students feel comfortable, confident and connected to their school and their bookstore.
• College search, acceptance and enrollment
Stores work with schools to host open house events for admitted and/or prospective students that often serve as their first interaction with the bookstore. At Rutgers University, the bookstore hosts separate events for admitted students where they can enroll on the spot, making the store part of one of the most significant decisions a student will make from the very beginning.
• New student orientation
Bookstores host VIP events for freshmen and new students to help familiarize them with the services and support that help them settle in to their new life on campus. Booksellers are trained to help students with books and merchandise, as well as offerings like café and convenience that students may not know are available. These events also include games, food and prizes — giving students opportunities to get acquainted with each other as well.
• Mid-terms and final exams
Many bookstores host De-Stress Fest events during mid-terms and/or finals. Students can take a break from studying to relax and have fun with friends. Every store is different, but many offer coloring or crafting as well as the opportunity to pet and play with puppies and therapy animals. Ohio State has even brought in zoo animals like a sloth and snow leopard cub.
“Customers are shopping more and more online, but brick-and-mortar stores are still so important because they allow us to connect with our customers through experiences, whether that means the touch and feel of a fabric or memories made at an in-store event,” says Sherry Fang, Consumer Marketing Specialist for Barnes & Noble College. “And, when it comes to customer service, nothing beats face-to-face interaction and that instantaneous response or solution. It’s just so important to have the option. Digital marketing complements the in-store experience perfectly — we use it continuously to drive sales and traffic into the store.”
While Barnes & Noble College provides toolkits and guidance to bookstores on signature events, the stores also have a lot of flexibility to develop events tailored to their students and campuses. Barnes & Noble at Monroe College bookstore manager Cynthia Cameron is known for creating in-store events that give students the opportunity to shine — and shows how versatile the bookstore can be.
The store already holds open mic nights where students can sing, rap or read their own poetry, and soon, the store will kick off its first karaoke event. It also hosts a student art exhibit each semester, where students enrolled in art classes not only have the opportunity to display their artwork, but can take the stage and talk about what their art means.
“We get to showcase homegrown talent — it’s a bigger platform than just singing in your dorm shower! Students look at each other in a different light because they didn’t know about these talents. And then they look at the bookstore in a different light as well,” says Cameron. “We’re always trying to find new ways to show our students that we’re not just a bookstore. We want them to think of us when they need anything, even if they just have a question about where to find something on campus. It’s not always about the transaction, it’s about the experience. We always want to let them know that we’re here for them.”
Barnes & Noble at Monroe College also contributes its space for campus groups and events, such as the annual President/Dean’s List dinner, which recognizes students for their academic achievements. However, the bookstore’s appeal doesn’t just lie in formal events — it’s the warm, welcoming environment that Cameron and her staff create. When the store celebrated a series of Bookseller Appreciation days, the staff dressed according to different themes, including a pajama day. Customers enjoyed the festive atmosphere, both while shopping and online.
“We are wherever our customers are, and that means creating a welcoming in-store experience as well as delivering that experience online. We conduct email campaigns and offer promotions in the mobile app, but we also use social media to bond with customers over everyday stuff like the fun of wearing your PJs to work. It’s not always about asking people for things. You get a better reception from people when you reach out just because. Students choose to be here,” Cameron says. “The possibilities of how we can support them are endless.”