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Beyond the Bookstore: A Look at the Rise of Campus Retail

Retailers see an opportunity for expansion at university campuses.

The face of campus retail is changing. For decades, universities were known for their dearth of retail beyond a college bookstore. But now, retailers both large and small are seizing the opportunity to expand their operations beyond traditional shopping centers and onto university campuses where they can capture the attention of a niche audience: students. Students’ demand for college essentials in a convenient location while away at school has led retailers to create college-geared shopping experiences. Take a look at the factors driving the campus retail evolution and learn how universities can curate the right retail mix.

Factors fueling the rise of campus retail

While it’s not a new phenomenon, campus retail is evolving to better serve the needs of universities and their communities. Retailers are competing for prime real estate on college campuses where they can get in front of a captive audience comprised of thousands of students and faculty. This is a close-knit community that retailers need to support on an annual basis with an array of amenities, including entertainment and fitness options, school essentials, grab-and-go food, comfortable clothing, home decor, groceries, and more. Sure, students have the option to order online and they can ask their parents for care packages, but if universities want to stand out in this competitive market, offering a range of retail uses right on campus will help boost retention rates and attract prospective, convenience-driven students.

Fulfilling university campuses

National retail brands are also realizing that university campuses present an opportunity to further drive sales. On-campus retail provides brands with the opportunity to grow their fulfillment side of the business. Years ago, parents would send care packages directly to the student mailroom. However, college mailrooms aren’t always accommodating to student schedules and they can easily get backlogged. It’s now easier for parents to go online and order a custom package from a major nearby retailer with just a click of a button. The student can then walk across campus to the Target or a similar store to retrieve his or her package that same day. Talk about convenience!

Campus retailers appealing to younger generations

Tapping into the college market isn’t easy. The retailers that want to be on university campuses have a deep understanding of the younger generation and what attracts them. They sell merchandise that makes sense for not only the students, but the surrounding community and university by evaluating what’s already being offered in the local retail market and what’s missing. For example, a retailer located on an East Coast campus will likely look different than one on the West Coast. It is all about paying attention to your audience and curating the merchandise accordingly. Retailers also know that younger consumers are interested in personalized service and memorable experiences. Campus retailers that offer special incentives for university students, including after-hour shopping events and accepting university currency, can win the favor of young shoppers and turn them into life-long customers.

Final thoughts

Looking ahead, campus retail will continue to grow and evolve to meet the changing needs of students. Retailers that can add value to campuses will gain momentum and expand their footprint across universities, while less popular concepts will die out and be replaced. It’s important that campus retail adds to the overall college experience, gives universities a competitive edge, and supports the needs of students, faculty, and the surrounding community for years to come.

Steve Niggeman serves as executive vice president and principal of Metro Commercial.

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