The Craft of Convenience

May 20, 2013


For Lisa Shapiro, convenience is something you can carry. “Find me something I can grab and go, throw in a backpack, reseal or carry from class to class,” says the Director of Café & Convenience for Barnes & Noble College, channeling the needs of her millennial customers. “We’re always looking for items with that kind of utility – when students are constantly on the go, these are the kinds of features that can really count,” she adds. Finding out what counts, and sleuthing out the next trend in convenience items is key to the Barnes & Noble College store experience, but it’s not easy. Retailing to the 18-24 year-old age category presents its own challenges in an environment where students often skip meals, have fierce brand loyalties yet are heavily influenced by trends, or can be price conscious yet prepared to spend on the brands they like.

Energy, Diet and Social Responsibility

A Rutgers University students shops for a selection of energy bars at the Barnes & Noble at Rutgers University Bookstore.
A Rutgers University students shops for a selection of energy bars at the Barnes & Noble at Rutgers University Bookstore.

Although Shapiro analyzes the wealth of data at her disposal, such as Spectra, IRI and Nielsen to determine regional and demographic trends, decoding the needs of the millennial generation is often more about a shrewd understanding in the workings of the retail market. “Our start point is with the products our stores are already doing well with; the next question then becomes what segments do we want to build on where these trends are already working for us and showing growth,” she explains.

Among the current trends, energy products are particularly popular. In every conceivable format from hard candy, gum or shots, energy products fit the millennial demographic and lifestyle perfectly. There are also trends that appeal to a wider population, yet condense into an especially powerful niche in the campus environment. “Our students have been brought up to be aware of dietary concerns and have a much stronger understanding of gluten, dairy and nut-free products,” says Shapiro pointing to a range of products currently on the shelves that are either allergy friendly or reflect the ‘free-from’ phenomenon.

Understanding Lifestyles

Understanding those kinds of lifestyle and cultural factors are essential in deciding what is stocked or what gets dropped in the Barnes & College campus stores. Yet understanding buying trends isn’t always obvious. Some items, such as Smart Water, or even Starbucks coffee, seem to refute the idea of students making purchasing decision based on budget alone. “We’ve taken a good look at that phenomenon with our ‘Indulgence on a Budget’ lines,” explains Shapiro. “We’ve introduced items like premium chocolate with a product such as Lindor Stick – it’s a way to drive consumers who might be new to the premium category and run trials to gauge the feedback.”

Divine ChocolatePrice may also be combined with other factors, such as social responsibility for example. Shapiro cites Divine Chocolate, a Fair Trade chocolate brand that only uses cocoa from certified Fair Trade farms in Ghana in their products. Farmers in Ghana also own shares in the company, which helps them and their workers obtain a decent standard of living. “We discuss things like the Fair Trade symbols and mission with our store managers,” she says, noting, “These products may often carry a slightly higher price tag, but when the social narrative behind these brands is appreciated, then it can often be justified.”

Bacon, bacon, bacon!

At the end of the month, new products will start to appear in campus stores, and some may seem surprising. “Bacon is everywhere,” says Shapiro. “From Wendy’s Baconator to Starbucks’ Artisan bacon sandwich – there are even bacon-flavored chocolates,” she points out. Bacon jerky has already been tested in some college stores and became an immediate sell-out. Another trend centers on more portable choices for breakfast. “People know they need to eat breakfast, but rarely have time for it,” Shapiro says. Now, more breakfast bar options and newer choices such as Special-K Pastry Crisps, will be joining the perennial breakfast favorites such as Pop Tarts.

The company will also be rolling out a national program in conjunction with Chobani yogurt. “You’ll be seeing Greek yogurt in more and more places, even as a condiment in sandwiches and salads,” she points out. While classic best-sellers such as Oreo’s, Chex Mix, Snickers, M&M’s, Cheez-Its and Pringles continue to be the core of the business, some of the newer, and perhaps more short-lived trends can still have powerful appeal. “Franchise items such as Angry Birds Star Wars or Super Mario Fruit Ninja – sometimes you might not personally see the appeal of products that are especially attractive to the millennial generation,” says Shapiro. “But you always have to be working in this environment and know your customer. You have to have a genuine curiosity about what’s going to be the next big thing.”