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College Store Conditioning

One could argue that college campus convenience stores don't face nearly as many marketing and operations challenges as their general-population counterparts. They certainly have location — often multiple campus locations — on their side; a built-in customer base of hungry, stressed-out students who keep crazy hours and visit stores several times daily; and buying power and economies of scale often shared with college bookstores and other retail and foodservice formats on campus.

Sounds like they have it made, doesn't it? Now let's take a look at their challenges. They mainly employ students whose priorities are school, athletics and socialization and who live semester to semester; campus food and retail competition is steep, not to mention what goes on off-campus to draw them away; and, saving the best for last, they can't sell three of the industry's top categories — gasoline, tobacco and beer.

So how do they succeed? By staying on top of students' chameleon-like and nocturnal needs, soliciting their feedback and implementing their suggestions quickly, and keeping up with new product and flavor trends. Not surprisingly, beverages and foodservice are the top-selling categories in most campus stores. (For more, turn to our cover story "Class Acts" on Page 28).

But in addition to learning from college stores and how they operate and survive by a different set of rules than general-population stores, there is also much to be learned in this story about the next generation of customers. Almost everything college students know about convenience stores, they learn on campus. They are pre-conditioned as convenience store customers on campus. So what can mainstream convenience stores do to make sure they appeal to these students after graduation? What can industry operators learn from campus stores about the future shopping behavior of this important customer base?

In and between the lines of Melissa Master's cover story, one can glean quite a bit about what college students might expect from the outside world of convenience:

n The c-store is first and foremost a watering hole, and student customers know about new beverages before they hit store shelves. They want the newest stuff right away.

n Health and wellness are more important to them than past emerging college youth. They read labels and make decisions accordingly.

n Seemingly homemade and made-from-scratch bakery and food items appeal greatly.

n Meal solutions will likely be more important to graduating college students, a majority of whom either do not know or care about cooking.

n They are high-volume patrons of proprietary foodservice programs on campus and will buy food as long as it tastes good and there is a strong value equation.

n Warm, friendly environments with a sense of community appeal to them.

n A clean and safe environment, fair trade and social consciousness are really important to them.

n They are conditioned to pay a premium for convenience!

The industry should thank these campus stores for training future generations of convenience store shoppers so well. And perhaps general-population store owners and operators should spend more time on college campuses studying, understanding and preparing to serve this next generation of customers.
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