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.