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CSA Exclusive: Barnes & Noble College engages Gen Z on their terms

A leading college retailer provides Gen Z students with much more than books.

Operating 777 brick-and-mortar stores and 714 e-commerce sites at colleges across the country, Barnes & Noble College has a unique frontline perspective on the wants and needs of its primarily Gen Z customer base. Ken Wincko, VP marketing of Barnes & Noble College, recently spoke with Chain Store Age about how the retailer designs its entire omnichannel merchandising and customer engagement strategy around Gen Z’s shopping and cultural preferences.

“The Gen Z customer base is different than any other generation,” said Wincko. “Their value system, aspirations and self-view are based around having a responsibility to change the world. They have a strong voice. From a merchandising perspective, they live online and via social media. Gen Z wants to shop in an immersive, personal way.”

In response to the generational preferences of its core shoppers, Barnes & Noble College customizes its entire in-store customer experience, down to seasonal- and even campus-specific merchandise offerings and store concepts. These include beginning-of-the-year “Uncharted” concept shops aimed at providing new students with educational supplies and licensed school apparel, as well as “Spirit Shops” on campuses with a strong athletic program, seasonal Halloween and holiday shops, and wellness- and graduation-themed shops in the springtime.
“We celebrate all things college,” said Wincko. “We curate a lifestyle and align it to the college journey. There is a saying, if you’ve seen one Barnes & Noble College store, you’ve seen one Barnes & Noble College store.”

So far, Barnes & Noble College has rolled out a school-specific customer experience at 70 campuses across the country. The retailer has seen an average sales lift of 4% at these stores, and a lift between 6 and 8% in the apparel category.

Barnes & Noble College also constructs a personalized customer experience outside the four walls of the store. “Everything is customized across mobile, e-commerce, and social media,” stated Wincko. 

For example, the retailer creates “Instagrammable moments” by identifying local campus influencers with automated social media analytical tools, and having them engage with the brand by taking targeted selfies. And an in-store pickup app bridges the gap between the digital and physical shopping experience.

“We just launched a program where we send an SMS text message when an online order is ready for pickup,” said Wincko. “Using geolocation targeting, we can determine when a customer is entering the store to pick up their online order and can send a personalized coupon for additional merchandise.”

Analytics are also employed to determine exactly what types of products and services students at a particular campus are interested in. “We poll students weekly,” explained Wincko. “Plus there is our annual Student Pulse survey to find out the academic requirements of students at a specific campus and what type of retail experience best meets their wants and needs.”

In addition, the retailer analyzes POS data to determine what brands students are buying. As a result, Barnes & Noble College provides goods from Target, as well as branded on-campus AT&T lounges. At 10 select schools, the retailer is even offering in-store Urban Outfitters concept shops.

Looking ahead, Wincko said the retailer will continue to try to evolve and enhance the omnichannel customer experience with features such as in-store promotions customers could automatically add to the mobile wallet in their Barnes and Noble College app by scanning their phone when they enter.

“Students are in a rush,” Wincko concluded. “If we can save them five minutes, that’s a big deal.”

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