By David Bennett, Senior Editor
Convenience stores aren’t new to U.S. college campuses. For years, universities have afforded students expedient spaces where they can purchase beverages, snacks and merchandise.
However, just like the big chains, campus operators must constantly strive to provide customers with a cumulative shopping experience to keep them coming back.
Three years ago, Tamara Highsmith, dining services manager at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), was one of a handful of planners who looked upon the existing convenience store on campus as a necessity. The site provided students with essential items, but it still left a lot to the imagination.
After reviewing the options of closing or moving the store, university planners completed a “spring break” turnaround last year, transforming it into an award-winning c-store that has become a desired destination for students and faculty. Stakeholders began planning how to reinvent the old site into a c-store that offered customers healthy food options, dynamic drink choices and a holistic shopping experience for a population of Millennials, who study hard and are constantly on the move.
Imagination, creativity and technical know-how are just a few of the qualities that could describe the student body at VCU. For example, U.S. News & World Report in 2013 named the VCU Medical Center the No. 1 hospital in Virginia for the second year in a row, with three programs—nephrology, pediatric nephrology and orthopedic surgery—ranking in the top 50 nationally. The university also boasts one of the top art programs in the country.
Enrolling more than 31,288 undergraduate, graduate and first-professional students in 222 certificate and degree programs, VCU also has nearly 1,500 international students from 96 countries around the world.
Living and learning in such a highly charged, academic atmosphere requires dynamic dining programs, which VCU offers in abundance. However, students don’t live by Salisbury steak alone.
Such a wide and diverse pool of students required an innovative plan for an on-site c-store that would engage customers, while providing efficient and quality service.
The plan that was devised recently earned VCU the top spot in the New Store Design Innovation category, part of National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS) 2014 C-Store Best in the Business competition.
“We at VCU dining services are extremely honored to have been recognized for this award,” Highsmith said.
The plan for VCU’s new-age c-store, P.O.D. Market, was actually forged from a blueprint created in 2008, when Aramark Higher Education piloted a campus convenience store concept known as Provisions on Demand Market on three campuses, including Brandeis University, University of Tennessee and University of Toledo. Today the c-store program has spread to more than 350 college campuses nationwide.
As it does with VCU, Aramark partners with dozens of other university and college campuses as a single-source provider for the design and operation of residential restaurants, campus retail dining, catering and convenience stores.
At VCU, planners took a singular approach, weighing different ideas from the student body and other campus stakeholders. The VCU c-store relies on functionality, but is also appealing and incorporates design concepts unique to the P.O.D. Market template.
“The one thing about the store that really stands out, compared to the previous store, is when you walk into that (main commons) building you can see it; it’s bright, the signage is there,” said Michael Martin, an Aramark regional manager that works directly with VCU. “This one really stands out.”
The changes to the site were made over the last summer in preparation for the 2013 fall semester. As part of the $350,000 renovation, the space was gutted to fit several upgrades:
A more inviting atmosphere was created by adding a faux brick store facing, more lighting, increased signage and large food related graphics.
Lower profile fixtures were installed, enabling visibility to various product lines and the cashier’s station.
Existing fixtures were removed and wall space was utilized to display products. This change enlarged the feel of the store without increasing the physical footprint, and created an environment that allows shoppers to see more of the products offered.
To appease tech-savvy customers, the store is WiFi-capable throughout.
VCU’s P.O.D. Market wasn’t expanded outside of its original 1,063-square-foot footprint, Martin said. Rather every foot of space within its redesigned glass and concrete walls were assimilated to provide customers a functional, yet alluring, location where the likelihood of stock outages was minimized and product offerings were expanded.
“One of the issues that we had before, we had reach-in coolers for beverages that were front-loading and we would empty out real quickly, over a lunch period, within 45 minutes we would empty out,” Martin said. “So one of the requirements I really wanted was back-loading coolers. The back-loading works and we keep it full all the time.”
“We have a rounded cash register up right up front, we were able to do impulse items around there, and we added in a coffee component, which we didn’t have before, and yogurt, where you can top your own yogurt,” Martin added. “They did an awesome job of making sure that every inch of that store is filled with something. ”
The use of the space is what makes the P.O.D Market distinctive, compared to its predecessor, Highsmith said.
“They lowered fixtures in the store so the cashier in the center can maintain contact with the customers, and they’re actually interacting with each other, so it makes a really great experience for the shopper as well as getting so many SKUs into the store,” Highsmith said.
In addition to a better customer experience, the centrally-located cashier can better monitor store activity, including possible shoplifting.
Besides regular snacks, grocery items and merchandise, the P.O.D. Market also gives students the access to healthier food alternatives and grab-and-go options. Part of the business plan included:
Product mix and quantity sold in the convenience store was optimized in response to national trends in snacking, convenience and healthy options.
A simple reconfiguration and removal of a few underselling SKUs enabled the P.O.D. Market to retail more grab-and-go items. Previous student surveys also showed a demand for sushi and more sandwich wrap options. The rebranding and reconfiguration enabled the retailing of more popular items.
New self-serve items were added. VCU’s store now features soft-serve ice cream, yogurt, Jamba Juice smoothies, self-service coffee, fountain beverages and bulk candy/snack food.
All-day grab-and-go dining options were added, as well as more traditional convenience store items.
Highsmith explained that food choices within the convenience store are part of the overall dining service that VCU provides, so if students only have time for a quick meal, that can count as part of their individual dining plan.
“The other unique factor about our market, on a college campus, dining plans have become very important to these students, and (VCU) students can actually use their dining plan at the convenience store to pick up something like a grab-and-go salad, a grab-and-go wrap, pair with a bag of chips, a fountain drink and a piece of fruit and that becomes one of their meals off of their dining plan,” Highsmith said.
Accounting for every aspect of the customer experience is payoff in both customer feedback and sales. Martin estimates sales at the P.O.D Market will top $800,000 this year.
Obviously, the c-store is already ringing up awards for its innovative style.
NACUFS Best in the Business winners 2014:
• Foodservice Application: Vanderbilt University
• Hybrid C-Store: North Carolina State University
• New Store Design Innovation: Virginia Commonwealth University
• Updating Your Existing C-Store: Syracuse University
• Merchandising in Your Retail Venues: Pepperdine University
VCU’s Market At A Glance
Name: P.O.D. Market
Location: University Student
Supervisor: Tamara Highsmith
Size: 1,063 square feet
Number of products: 800-plus SKUs
Total employees: 5
Renovation cost: $325,000
Estimated annual sales
in 2014: $800,000