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Ready to Wow

What Retailers Need to Know as Gen Z Goes to College

University of Kentucky Bookstore

It’s back-to-school season and a new generation of students, Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2015), is starting to make its way through the education system. With over 700 on-campus store locations, Barnes & Noble College is at the front lines of marketing to and serving this new cadre of students. So what does it mean to engage today’s college students and what are their expectations of retailers? We checked in with Barnes & Noble College COO Lisa Malat, who has also held the role of CMO, to find out.

What’s different about the Gen Z college student versus the previous generation?
Lisa Malat: What makes Gen Z uniquely different is how they see themselves as individuals. Really, [it’s] how they look at their value system, their aspirations, and the importance of how that aligns with how they view themselves in the world. And [then] what retailers or what brands they choose to associate with. As part of that, they feel a really strong sense of responsibility to change the world and to correct things they see that they don’t think are right, and to really be a voice. 

How do you use that customer insight to encourage on-campus bookstore sales?
We operate as the official campus retailer on over 700 schools across the country. And our business and our spaces really represent all things college to students. So, whether they need their course materials to be ready on the first day of class, the latest school-branded sweatshirt to go to the homecoming game, or the latest technology to be prepared to learn, we provide all of that to our students. So to answer your question, when you think about how have students and retail changed over the last 10 years or even five years, I think technology has fueled such a democratization of information of choices.

Consumers today have an enormous amount of options. They do an enormous amount of research before they make their purchases, so really the opportunity for retailers and the opportunity we saw for Barnes & Noble is how do we differentiate in the space? How do we optimize it? We can take advantage of the incredible on-campus presence we have and the front-row seat that we have to the college experience and really go beyond the commoditization of product, the commoditization of textbooks, or even school-branded apparel and really move toward curation.

How are you able to do that?
I think that what we do very successfully and the advice I would give to any retailer or any brand, is to constantly be on the pulse and in the heads of your consumer. We have a large research and insights platform where we reach thousands of students on a daily basis, serving them and getting into their minds on a variety of topics, including what their expectations are from a retail experience; what their expectations are from the campus store, and how do we meet and exceed them? 

Through all of that research, we learned that brick and mortar matters. The physical space matters to Gen Z. They are digital natives. They live online, they live in social media, but the social connection and the experience of going into a store and being able to immerse themselves and engage with a brand or a retailer in their own personal way is critically important. So as we do this research, we create these experiential moments in our stores. 

For example, we’ve always had graduation products in our stores, but we never took the opportunity to really curate it together with things like books that speak to the journey post-college or career success, or even mental health and wellness. Or to create these spaces where parents, grandparents, family members, and students can congregate and be able to imagine themselves as graduates. They can create these Instagrammable moments in our stores where students are trying on their cap and gown and holding a diploma frame and say, “Hey, Mom, look at me. This is four years from now.” So to be able to create those moments at the right time in their journey has proven to be very impactful for us and our consumers.

How do you capture Gen Z insight?
When we first launched our research platform, we incentivized students. There was a point-based system where students accumulated points to get branded merchandise, Barnes & Noble gift cards, etc. But over the last couple of years, we’ve actually stepped back from that and we are finding that it wasn’t necessary. And we have not seen any drop-off in participation. I believe again, it goes to who this generation is and their need and their sense of urgency to have their voices heard and to be able to affect change.

What is Barnes & Noble College doing to connect the online and offline experience? 
LM: So as all retailers feel there’s a blurring of lines between brick and mortar and online. We offer the customer the ability to shop any way they want. We have a growing e-commerce business where our consumers can stock up on all their academic needs online. But the large percentage of our consumers pick up in store. For new incoming freshmen, for example, we reach out when they get their acceptance letters to congratulate them on their achievement and invite them to shop online. And starting in the summer, they’re placing their orders online for everything they’re going to need for academic and social success. 

But when they hit campus, when they come in for the orientations or for move-in week, they want to be in the campus store. Because when they walk into that space they feel a sense of pride and accomplishment because it represents the school and what they were able to achieve. They want to be immersed in that experience. They want to be there with their friends. They’re going to pick up their order, but they’re also going to pick up additional items that hopefully are offering them a sense of discovery.

What’s on your roadmap next for keeping the customer experience fresh and relevant?
We’re really invested in optimizing the brick-and-mortar experience on our campuses. We are passionate about the power of connection with our students within our stores. So we are in the midst of a major retail transformation project where we are re-imagining the space. We are creating highly curated and relevant areas in our stores where the students can feel a sense of connection, an engagement through a robust experiential and event-driven strategy where, for example, we have a very strong partnership with Champion.

Champion is a very, very hot brand right now. So we created special Champion shops in our stores, which celebrate the heritage of the brand and also allow students to come in to customize and personalize their Champion product. We host DIY events where they can come in, select their product, and select different patches and ways to cut and sew their product to make it uniquely their own.

So you’re looking to have students spend more time in the stores versus coming in quickly to pick up something on the go?
LM: That is exactly what we’re doing. Our stores have really, over the last few years, become these social and academic clubs on campus. We have around 80 to 90 full-service cafes across the country. We have extensive seating areas and study lounges in our stores. And in all of our research about the expectations of the campus store, it’s, “I want more study areas. I want more seating. I want to be able to relax and lounge in between classes and grab a cup of coffee.” 

How are you connecting these CX improvements to the bottom line?
LM: We have a lot of KPIs that we’ve established as we look at our retail transformation project, and of course, we’re looking at sales data. To fully measure the success of our transformation efforts, we track core KPIs from an omnichannel perspective at various points through the customer journey—from awareness and engagement all the way through to sales. For example, during the pilot program, our Barnes & Noble College retail stores experienced a significant increase in store traffic, and social engagement (on sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook) was double the industry benchmarks.

And we also have a pretty solid research strategy where we’re looking at it on a hyper-local level. So for the stores that we’re going into and transforming, we’re talking to our students before the transformation, during, and after to really gauge their responses and their feedback on how we can improve and make it better. So  there are a lot of inputs as you can imagine, which really will give us the bigger picture. But I can tell you that from our initial data of this transformation work we’re doing, the results on all of those KPIs have been very strong. We’re going to continue to scale this effort.