College Convenience Competes Locally

Kent State’s Eastway Market & Deli offers students the products they need at affordable prices to keep shopping occasions on campus.

By Megan Wilkinson and John Lofstock.

Getting to know your core customers is an ongoing challenge. But when your customers are a transient group of students, staying on top of their needs is virtually a 24-hour job. Such is the challenge for the more than 12,000 college and university food stores across the country.

The biggest advantage campus operations have over traditional restaurants and convenience stores is the captive audience, so there is intense pressure to provide good food, variety and value. But just as these operators get to know their customers’ likes and dislikes and find that winning marketing strategy to attract new business, June storms in and tears away 25% of their consumer base in a single graduation ceremony.

Fortunately, come August, a new collection of wide-eyed freshmen gathers on campus, many away from home for the first time, expecting hot meals, snacks and a good cup of coffee. The marketing effort starts anew.

It’s not difficult for students to find what they need when they visit Kent State University’s Eastway Market & Deli convenience store on the school’s main campus in Kent, Ohio. If a student wakes up late for class and needs a sandwich on the go, the Boar’s Head Deli in the c-store makes personalized sandwiches and wraps for about $5-$6. If a student needs a quick fix of caffeine to finish a project late at night, the Jazzman’s Cafe in the c-store stays open until 2 a.m., serving hot mochas, lattes, teas and more. There is a solution for everyone.

Kent State’s flagship Eastway Market & Deli is unique in that it offers students three businesses in one: an overstocked c-store, a coffeehouse and the Boar’s Head Deli station. Each of these offerings is open until 2 a.m. on weekdays, ensuring even the busiest students can access fresh meal throughout the day.

Since Eastway was overhauled and redesigned early this year, students report they like the store’s variety of products, the freshness of its products and the “killer” sandwiches sold at the Boar’s Head Deli.

“I like that they have coffee and smoothies,” said Angelia DiAntonio, a visual communication design student at Kent State. “They sell tea cups, paper towels and other products besides food you can buy with your meal plan.”

Building Trust with Students
The store opened to rave reviews. The Eastway Market & Deli is being honored by the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS) this year for creating an “Out of the Box” retail concept with three offerings under one roof. The association looks for the top college c-stores out of all that are entered in its annual contest.

College students often worry about being overcharged and paying too much money because of the high expenses of education. Eastway recognized this concern and posted a price comparison sign at the front of the c-store to help students make better buying decisions.

“We’ve been going to local convenience stores around us and comparing our prices with theirs to show students that we’re trying to keep our pricing in line,” said Sue Huzvar, a manager for Kent’ State’s dining services division. “We’re conscious of their feelings and needs.”

According to the Competitive Pricing Analysis chart, Eastway’s products are similarly priced, if not cheaper, than those same products at local c-stores, drugstores and grocers. The chart helps students to make better buying choices, and to learn how to budget when grocery shopping.

To focus on meeting the students’ needs for value and variety, Eastway employees monitor prices and the product selection at nearby stores, such as Giant Eagle, Speedway and Circle K. Then it markets its offering accordingly. For example, if a 20-ounce soda sells for $1.59 at other c-stores, supermarkets and drug stores in the Kent market, Eastway will price the bottle at $1.50.

Not all products sold at the university’s c-store are cheaper than products at supermarkets in the area, but the store is committed to driving value where it can.

“We can’t compete with places like Walmart, which is understandable considering their buying power,” Huzvar said. “They buy in bigger bulk, whereas we’re a convenience store.”

The store’s student manager, Kevin Gates, added that “because (Eastway Market & Deli) is on campus, it doesn’t buy as much product” and gets lower discounts from suppliers. As a result, in some cases, they are forced to sell products for a higher price just to break even.

Dennis Bean, assistant director of Kent State dining services, said the award recognizes a main concept to students on the Kent State campus.

“We’re really excited about the award,” Bean said. “It lets students know that we are being competitive locally and that we can quickly respond to their needs to make their shopping experience with us as affordable as possible.”

Rachel Warner, NACUFS director of communications and marketing, noted that college c-stores have become more popular on campuses nationwide over the past few years. She said the best college c-stores have “intuitive, open layouts” with items targeted to the campus population, such as snack foods, groceries, sundries and branded apparel.

The NACUFS C-Store Best in the Business awards are judged by a team of students and c-store managers, led by Dean Wright, director of dining services at Brigham Young University and Jason Gilbert from PepsiCo Foodservice.

Three Businesses In One
During CSD’s visits to the Eastway Market & Deli following the spring semester at Kent State, the store was only sporadically busy, with a few transient students wrapping up their affairs before heading home for the summer. However, during the school year, the store is seldom without a handful of customers crowding its aisles.

Tia Protopapa, director of marketing with Kent State’s dining services, said on average 2,300 students stop by the store on a daily basis during the fall and spring semesters. Students typically spend between $6.50 to $35 per trip to Eastway, depending on the student’s needs.

For example, some customers stop by to fill up on groceries, while others might just want coffee or a sandwich.
What makes the store so popular is that it can satisfy such a wide variety of demands at a central location on the busy college campus.

Students have access to fresh made-to-order sandwiches along with a coffee bar that brews mochas, iced coffee, smoothies, lattes and pastries. Combined with the grocery selection, Eastway is a three-in-one concept store.

The c-store, deli and coffee shop all make significant profits for the university. According to Mike Meilander, Kent State’s dining services manager, the majority of business comes from groceries, with foodservice a close second. The sales breakdown by segment includes:
* 60% of sales come from store products
* 30% of sales come from deli sandwiches
* 10% of sales come from coffee sales

Kent State, Bean said, has been building and improving the setup of its main convenience store brand for about seven years. He recommended that other universities looking to create or redesign a convenience store concept first take the time to evaluate how well the store will work with its other dining facilities, and then figure out what products and services will appeal most to students. As a result of this background work, Kent State has developed a model that complements its dining halls, not cannibalizes transactions.

“You need to listen to the needs and study the demographics on campus,” Bean said, adding that the Eastway Market & Deli changes annually to fit campus demographics. “When anything changes, we like to react to that. We keep our program current.”
    
International Goes Local
Convenience stores might give consumers some options when it comes to international foods, but Eastway bends over backward when trying to make its student customers content with its options.

Protopapa said the university’s research has shown that college students today, most of whom are from the Millennial generation, prefer having wider varieties of products, instant gratification and contemporary set-ups.

“In order to meet the needs of our increasing student population, we need to have an ideal mix of both national and internal brands that include local and international flavors,” Protopapa said.

On top of selling the stereotypical Ramen noodles, water and frozen dinners to students, Protopapa said the market sells a variety of specialty items that are marketed to the university’s growing international populations. She said Eastway Market & Deli offers cuisine choices, ranging from Asian to Middle Eastern to Hispanic on a daily basis.

Campus students can also get fresh-made sushi, hummus dip, Jarritos drinks and other ethnic food products, such as beans, tortillas and rice to prepare their own dinner in their dorm kitchens.

Protopapa noted that it’s not particularly expensive for students to buy these products, either. She said because most of the student consumers who come in use dining plan cards for their purchases, the foreign foods and groceries are more affordable.

“We carry pastas, frozen meals and deli meat you can purchase by the pound,” Protopapa said. “A lot of other campuses don’t give you those opportunities. Our dining plans are all set up on a declining balance system, so oftentimes the money they spend here is not coming out of their pockets.”

The store also offers local products from the Kent, Ohio-area, such as Bent Tree coffee mixes, or original tea products from the Republic of Tea line for students looking to try something new. “Having several different options for students allows them to branch out and try new things,” Protopapa said.

Connecting Made Simple
All convenience stores need to touch base with their customers in some form.

At college convenience stores, this is sometimes easier because the retailers know whom they are trying to reach: students and young adults.
Millennial-generation consumers love to communicate with peers, professors and even retailers through mobile devices and social media apps because it’s quick and usually less time-consuming. Not surprisingly, a simple way to get through to college-aged consumers is through social media promotions—be it Twitter, Facebook, Groupon or Pinterest.

Kent State dining services has been promoting its products and special events on its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/kentstatedining) for about two years now. More than 1,300 students follow the c-store on Facebook.

The university also offers online comment cards for students to review business and services. Protopapa said both social media and the online comment cards help Kent State dining services receive instant feedback on whether something was good or not. “We tend to respond to students within an hour depending on the outlet they visited,” she said. “It’s a set rule that we have to get back within 24 hours at the latest.”
This type of service is just a small part of the university’s mission to serve its students.

“We know that our student customers have a lot of other options off campus to meet their daily needs,” Protopapa said. “So we really go out of our way to explain our offering and make every customer feel welcome. We want them to be satisfied for that visit and walk away thinking, ‘I’m going to go back there.’”

Facts and Figures: Kent State University

Kent State was established in 1910. The first classes were held in 1912 at various locations and in temporary buildings in Kent, Ohio.

Since then, the university has grown to include several additional baccalaureate and graduate programs of study in the arts and sciences.     The main campus in Kent, Ohio is spread over 1,000 acres and includes 119 buildings including 36 restaurants, convenience stores and coffeehouses.
Student Enrollment: 42,185
Main Campus: Kent, Ohio
Total Number of Campuses: 8
Total Faculty/Staff: 6,304
Convenience Stores/Coffeehouses: 12
Restaurants: 24
Distributor: Sodexo
Total Residence Halls: 25
Main Campus Residents: 6,402
Students with Meal Plans on Main Campus: 7,100
Website: www.kent.edu

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