campus competition

From coast to coast, colleges and universities operate campus convenience stores, offering everything from entres to organics— and, they say, they’re not in it for the money.

Forget Ramen noodles and those little boxes of cereal that wouldn’t satisfy a baby’s grumbling stomach. The college convenience store has evolved into much more.

Consider Harvard University, the storied Ivy Leaguer in Cambridge, Mass. A campus convenience store known as Buttery 29—the building, located at 29 Garden St. is designed to resemble and old, English buttery—peddles everything from freshly brewed Starbucks coffee to baked breakfast goods to ready-to-go meals, not to mention convenience hallmarks like candy, snacks and soft drinks.

Tucked in the university’s graduate student residence community, where dwellers have a minimal kitchen set-up of a knee-high refrigerator, two hot plates and a small microwave, Buttery 29 has proven popular among students, many of whom are constantly on the go.

The relatively small store—about 1,300 square feet—has been in business for three years, soliciting student input prior to opening, asking incoming grad-student residents what should line the shelves of Buttery 29.

“At first, they expressed an interest in the heavily organic products,” said Crista Martin, assistant director of marketing for Harvard’s dining services. “But when they got in [the store], they wanted more day-to-day kinds of things like snacks and sodas.”

Nearly 1,700 miles away, in Norman, Okla., the campus convenience store at the University of Oklahoma has gone a different route. Students who once craved only the basic snack foods and hygiene-related products such as toilet paper, in recent years have requested a healthier selection, prompting the university to dedicate one-third of its small store, Xcetera, to organics—and that includes organic TV dinners.

“We determined that was something the students wanted, and we go by what the students want,” said Shawn Henry, the university’s general manager of retail operations.

Located on the ground floor of the Walker Tower residence hall, the 2,500-square-foot Xcetera features three, 8-foot, double-sided sections, five coolers and an upright freezer. The store, much like that at other universities, employs a few full-time staff workers and lots of part-time students.

“We’re really popular for cleaning supplies and paper products, and also sell a ton of grocery items, canned foods and anything they can put in the microwave,” Henry said. “You know, they’re in college, so the microwaveable stuff is huge.”

The campus convenience store very much resembles its mainstream counterpart, only at colleges and universities, the operators aren’t trying to make a profit. In fact, in many cases, most say they’re just trying to break even.

“We’re not there to make money; we just have to cover ourselves,” said Cindy Stearns, the University of Richmond’s assistant director of marketing and special programs for dining services. “But you can’t have a convenience store on campus that’s not successful. It is, after all, funded by student money.”

The University of Richmond, a private college in Virginia, is home to about 3,000 undergraduates and two convenience stores, one of which is being revamped. On one side of campus, the Dean’s Den’s selection is small —chips, sodas, energy drinks, everything a college student needs.

On the other side of campus, the renovation of the school’s other store, known as Edible Bites since 1993, is set to be complete in August. The larger of Richmond’s two stores will feature everything from an expanded line of snacks and beverages to sandwiches and salads. The store also sells cigarettes—ararity among campus c-stores.

“We are finding more and more that our students are turning to a grab-andgo kind of lifestyle,” Stearns said.

Like most colleges and universities, Richmond allows students to use either meal plan credits or cash to pay for their convenience purchases. But the challenge, according to some college officials, does not rest in getting students to spend money once they’re in the store; it’s getting them there in the first place.

“As students get further along in school, they’re moving into apartments and disassociating themselves from campus, so they’re not in your pool of [customers],” Stearns said. “So you’re trying to capture freshmen as soon as they get here.”

To market the c-store, which is worked by students and managed by a full-time staffer, the university aggressively promotes, endeavoring to make incoming freshmen aware of their options. Fliers and Frisbees are left in dorm rooms advertising the c-store, and students are given tours of the dining facilities at the start of the semester.

At the University of Montana, in the Rocky Mountain town of Missoula, marketing the on-campus Cascade Country Store is an unending challenge. The result is the constant creation of fresh signage and the hosting of events to educate new students on what dining services has to offer.

“It’s something we have to do very aggressively,” said David Opitz, the university’s purchasing manager for dining services. “Just a couple of posters in the dorm areas doesn’t cut it.”

Montana—and its flagship university —is home to a diverse population that includes a healthy percentage ofHispanics, Native Americans and international students. To that end, the Cascade Country Store offers not only traditional c-store fare, but Mexican and Native American offerings as well. The store also features a countertop roller grill, as well as a cook-and-hold steamer, two staples of traditional convenience retailers.

And, similar to the University of Oklahoma and among convenience retailers nationwide, the trend at the University of Montana is shifting toward natural, organic foods—“ anything and everything soy is popular here,” Opitz said.

“We’re always changing our offerings,” he added. “We change the food lines depending on what’s in vogue at the time.”

Beyond Popularity
The campus convenience store, much like its counterpart in the “real world,” is continually evolving. Take Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school of 4,000-plus undergraduates in Hanover, N.H. Its c-store, Topside, is located on the upper level of Thayer Dining Hall and has been a campus fixture for 15 years, maturing from snack bar to grocery store.

“Years and years ago it was kind of a hangout place, and way, way back it used to be a make-your-own sandwich place,” said Todd Tattershall, the store’s manager for five years and a Dartmouth dining services employee for 13 years.

The 1,200-square-foot Topside, flanked by a kosher restaurant and a healthy foods eatery, now sells “ everything but gasoline, tobacco, lottery, beer and wine”—about 2,200 unique items. This past December the store added an organic section, but Tattershall said the top sellers remain a bottle of Coke and a bag of chips.

“When I first started here at the college, the students talked healthier and ate worse,” he said. “Now they talk less and tend to eat a little better.”

Catering to a changing clientele each year can be challenging, but university officials say campus c-stores can always rely on grab-and-go meals like soup and microwaveables, such as macaroni and cheese.

“It might be one person that can sway something in terms of what we stock in the store,” Tattershall said. “For instance, we have a guy who buys eight boxes of Rice Chex every other day. Eight boxes.”

The Customer
At the University of Georgia (UGA), in Athens, clientele is everything. The university’s latest convenience offering, The Village Market, op
ened two years ago along with a new upperclassmen and graduate student residence community known as East Campus Village and its adjoining dining hall, East Village Commons.

UGA has been in the convenience market for years, formerly managing one store each in high-rise freshmen dormitories Brumby, Myers and Creswell halls; each of those stores also served as a check-cashing location. As the university expanded its meal-plan program to provide unlimited access and a longer dinner period, the c-store business died.

With the opening of the East Campus Village, however, UGA officials saw an opportunity to reintroduce students to convenience.

“We felt like we had a different clientele there than we had in the high-rise dorms,” said Michael Floyd, UGA’s director of food services. “We call The Village Market our convenience store, but in a lot of ways it’s very similar to the other grab-and-gos on campus.

Scattered throughout the university, in addition to four expansive dining halls, are eight grab-and-gos, most of which derive their names from the school mascot, a Bulldog. There’s Dawg Bites in the Biological Sciences Building, The Dawg Bone in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Bone Appetit in Aderhold Hall, home of the university’s College of Education.

“We see it as a service,” Floyd said of the campus c-store. “What we find is that the vast majority of our customers (at the East Village Commons) are not on our meal plans, so our convenience store really serves our off-campus students and those living in the East Campus Village.”

Location is key at UGA. The Village Market convenience store is situated within steps of a campus bus stop, a huge workout facility and an under-construction art center, not to mention the 1,200-bed upperclassmen housing.

“It’s all about pleasing your customer,” Floyd said.


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