Even though the first impression of college can often be obtained through an unreliable lens of excitement and anticipation, those early days on campus can also seem a little daunting to many incoming freshmen. There’s the geography of a whole campus to be learned, a class schedule to be acquainted with and new friends to be made. There’s also an unfamiliar course load and sometimes, an intimidating amount of learning materials to come to terms with.
In an effort to give new students an early start with being at home on campus, Barnes & Noble College initiated a series of special VIP Shopping Nights in their campus bookstores last year. Designed as an exclusive shopping night for freshman to help welcome them to their new surroundings, the success of those events has resulted in an even greater number of stores participating in the VIP events — and the response has been impressive.
The VIP Shopping Night events were created as a result of Barnes & Noble College’s research into freshmen concerns. The study revealed that many students found their early days on campus to be intimidating and sometimes confusing, so the VIP events were created as a very different kind of solution. “Essentially, they’re an opportunity for new students to become familiar with their textbook options in an atmosphere that’s specifically tailored to them,” explains Carol Pinto, Project Manager, Consumer Marketing for Barnes & Noble College. “It’s a great way for freshmen to spend time with our booksellers in a one-on-one atmosphere if they’re uncertain about whether they want to buy or rent their books — or to learn about the advantages of digital textbooks for example,” she adds.
With the goal of helping students find exactly what they need for their classes and for their college life, the occasion provides the opportunity to help keep bookstore sales on campus, but Pinto stresses that there’s a lot more to it than just commerce. “This is probably the first time these students have been on campus since orientation, so it’s also a great social occasion — a chance to meet other class members, to find out who else is in their dorm — and it’s also a great opportunity to help build loyalty and trust with their new school,” she says.
While the first year of VIP Shopping Nights was hosted by less than one hundred stores, over 270 events were hosted this year. At Long Beach City College, the Viking Bookstore at the LAC campus was busy with over 250 students who attended the event and participated in a variety of fun activities. “It was a great opportunity to create some camaraderie with the new students,” explains General Manager Dana Heathcott. “They really enjoyed participating in scavenger hunts, a karaoke competition and even a fashion show of some of our school spirit merchandise,” she adds.
The fact that Heathcott puts the emphasis on the more entertaining features of the event is no accident. Getting the new students familiar with all of the resources the bookstore can offer in a creative and collaborative way is the whole point of event. Pinto says the events are important even for smaller stores or those who don’t have promotional budgets. “We created a toolkit for our store managers offering suggestions and ideas for their VIP events, but even without a lot of outlay, there are some great ways our stores have hosted some really successful events,” she says.
From encouraging students to DJ or creating a party music playlist on Pandora, to bringing in food and treats, the events are designed to engage the campus in as many ways as possible. With their audience of students who are unfamiliar with the campus, the VIP Shopping Nights also provide a perfect opportunity for partnering with local businesses to contribute with samplings or goodie bags.
Barnes & Noble at Texas Tech University Store Manager Monica Cowie knows all about the importance of building relationships and involvement on campus. Not only does she manage the campus bookstore that serves over 30,000 students, but she is also an adviser to a campus fraternity and serves on several school committees, including the Welcome Committee. For Cowie, welcoming students begins with the VIP Shopping Night event. “This is our third year holding a VIP Shopping Night and it just keeps getting bigger and better,” she says. “This year, I had more vendors asking me if they could participate and be a part of the event — and we had over 3,000 students attend. It was absolutely amazing!”
Texas Tech students lined up an hour before the event began for refreshments, samples, games, and a chance to win free textbooks for one semester. “Our students love this event because it allows them to see everything the school, bookstore and community has to offer,” Cowie says. “It’s also a great night for students to meet other freshmen and just have fun. Starting college can be a little intimidating for many freshmen and this is a great way to show them there is support on campus.”
Pinto’s aim is to ensure the bookstores’ VIP Shopping Nights become firmly established on the calendar for freshmen orientation, and welcomes increased participation with the campus by inviting student organizations and Greek Life to join in the fun. Future VIP Shopping Nights might also extend to include exclusive evenings for the college faculty or administration, and a chance for them to experience an exclusive night at the bookstore, tailored to their community and to their informational needs.
While VIP Shopping Nights create an enjoyable introduction to both the bookstore and the campus, the events also underline the serious mission of the bookstore. “We want to make sure our students know we’re here for more than textbook sales,” explains Heathcott. “We really want their store to be a place they’ll feel comfortable in and want to keep coming back to.” Students are coming back, as Texas Tech’s Cowie can attest to. “I meet so many freshmen at our VIP Shopping Nights,” she says, ‘so it’s really great when I continue to see those same students come back to my store time and time again — year after year.”