The new face of campus retail

How collegiate retailers can adapt and engage customers where they are now

Customer engagement has been evolving for the last several years, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, changes have been accelerated. Retail expert and Campus Advisory Services Senior Consultant Denise Walsh offers her insights about what has changed and how campus retailers need to adapt.

“The biggest shift I would say for campus retailers and specialty independent retailers, as well as big-box malls and retailers, is you can no longer rely on foot traffic to generate revenue,” Walsh says.

As a result, she says stores need to be asking how else they can engage with their customers.

Build relationships

Even though people are now interfacing with each other online, that doesn’t mean they aren’t looking for something special.

“Shoppers are looking for experiences,” emphasizes Walsh. “Especially for Gen Z’ers and Millennials, but more so Gen Z, because they love the aspect of social gatherings and doing things that are fun with other people.”

Walsh says customer engagement isn’t just about “Hi, how can I help you.” It’s important to understand that customers want relationships.

“What draws us to certain retailers and restaurants is that we feel valued as customers,” she says. “When I walk into a store, even if they don’t really know me, I like when they pretend they do. And, I don’t mean that in a fake way. I mean that genuinely.”

Obviously, because customers aren’t walking into stores as frequently anymore, relationships must get built in new ways.

Walsh suggests implementing a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system or another tool that keeps track of customer interactions and contact information. This can make it easier to track customer preferences and shopping habits and better target marketing efforts.


Enhance marketing and eCommerce experiences

A customer’s eCommerce experience is critical, Walsh emphasizes. “An online experience should be the same or better than an in-store experience,” she says.

Even if customers don’t complete the transaction online or they choose curbside pickup or local delivery, the process needs to be streamlined and simple, or customers will abandon the site altogether.

Marketing efforts should be ramped up and be both engaging and informative. Walsh suggests starting an email newsletter if you haven’t already and researching tactics like pixel re-targeting.

Specifically, Walsh noted the University of California San Diego Bookstore’s newsletter does a great job offering valuable content and sales opportunities to show off the store’s personality and keep the store top-of-mind for students.

Create new ways to shop

Having a strong eCommerce strategy is one way to entice customers to shop, but it’s not the only way.

“More retailers need to think about how to offer curbside pickup, consider delivery or offer virtual shopping experiences,” says Walsh.

Walsh has seen an increase in campus retailers using video or social media, like Facebook Live and Instagram stories, to showcase merchandise.


The North Dakota State University Bookstore is now using Facebook Shops so customers don’t even need to leave the social media platform to browse products. However, when you are ready to buy, it is an easy click to buy into their online platform. The University of Wyoming Bookstore features merchandise in social media videos frequently. And, the Iowa State University Bookstore is using Facebook Live and Shops to engage customers virtually.

One thing Walsh hasn’t seen campus retailers doing is live sales on social media. “Lots of boutiques and independent retailers run live sales and show customers merchandise in real time,” she explains.

She notes that live sales would require a separate way to invoice customers, but campus retailers looking for creative ways to reach customers shouldn’t rule out the possibility.

Handling course materials in new ways can also set campus retailers apart. Walsh encourages stores to consider adding a concierge service or making store pickup for materials easier by allow students to schedule specific time slots or pickup from a designated window, if available.

Optimize retail space

Finally, stores need to optimize their space as they consider reopening and social distancing implications.

Walsh recommends creating more open space where possible to make social distancing and engaging with customers easier and safer.

Another consideration is in-store signage. Signage should both inform customers about policy or process changes and also let customers know you care and that you’re taking their safety seriously.

“Remind customers of social distancing rules, including if masks are required, and make sure sanitation stations are noticeable throughout the store,” Walsh explains. “If masks are required, consider making them available for shoppers.”

These new rules might be awkward at first, but employee and customer safety is paramount, and Walsh says, stores should find comfort in these new guidelines.

“Stores can also replicate one-way aisles of grocery stores where possible and consider directional signage to help customers flow through the store more smoothly,” she says.

Your holiday merchandising guide: Covid edition

By Denise Walsh, Senior Advisor, Campus Advisory Services

For retailers, it’s already time to begin thinking about the end of the semester and the holidays. And, as we know, normal end-of-semester activities and holiday shopping will look different this year due to the coronavirus. To ready your store for a successful holiday season, follow these merchandising best practices and marketing tips.

Create a cause component. This year, have a servant heart and think about what your store can do to give back and help others who are struggling. Shoppers will likely be drawn to spending money that supports a cause. Consider supporting a specific student or campus group or department with a percentage of sales. Spur interest by involving those student groups or departments: for every person from the organization who makes a purchase within a certain timeframe, your store will support the specified group with a percentage of overall sales. Spur interest by involving those student groups or departments: for every person that mentions the organization when making a purchase within a certain timeframe, your store will support the specified group with a percentage of overall sales.

Prepare now (AKA earlier than normal!). This year shoppers will be shopping earlier and big retailers like Amazon and Target are already jumping on that trend. Because in-person gatherings will be limited, more people will be purchasing tangible gifts and shipping them to recipients. And, with shipping carriers already experiencing high-demand, the need to ship early is heightened.

Connect with your customers virtually. Your students, staff, faculty and community shoppers are likely missing the in-person retail experiences they’re used to. As a solution, think about how your store can create virtual shopping experiences through social media and on your website. Offer live social feeds highlighting your gift ideas or consider orchestrating some private shopping experiences for those who do want to shop in-store but still want to socially distance themselves.

Focus on your web presence. We repeat: focus on your web presence. Make sure general merchandise is listed online and featured as you would in store. It’s equally as important to think about online merchandising as in-store. Also, ensure the online shopping process is easy from searching and adding items to the cart to your checkout process. Create a journey for your customer to select a “gift idea” and target them to either a demographic, lifestyle or budget. Eliminate all barriers for your shoppers.

Create a (virtual) gift table. Provide gift ideas online, just as you would with in-store set ups. Make sure your virtual table tells a story to help customers make selections. Theme ideas could be: gifts for $25 or less; stocking stuffers or gifts for mom, dad and family members; tangible items instead of experiences; items for the home, office, kitchen or outdoors where people are spending more time; spirit gear for fans missing their in-person collegiate sporting events.

Monitor sales data. Check in regularly to detect fast and slow sellers. If there’s time, reorder merchandise selling quickly and ensure all stock is online or on the sales floor. Be creative about marketing your promotions to reach your audience digitally. Take advantage of social media and email marketing to drive sales to your website.