How Barnes & Noble College Creates Personalized In-Store Experiences

Tim Denman
Editor in Chief
Tim Denman profile picture

Barnes & Noble College has locations at nearly 800 college campuses across the country and is in the enviable position of possessing a highly-engaged customer base.

The bookstore is at the epicenter of the college experience. At the start of every semester students flock to the student store in droves to stock up on supplies and purchase the required textbooks for their classes. But Barnes & Noble College (BNC) wants to be more than just a place to get required reading materials, it wants to be a destination shop that helps students connect with their school, peers and the Barnes & Noble brand.

“If you've seen one Barnes & Noble College store, you've seen one Barnes & Noble College store,” says Lisa Malat, COO, Barnes and Noble College. “Each store represents what is local and unique about the campuses they serve. Every store is customized and personalized to the campus it serves. Which is exciting, but also operationally challenging.”

Keeping stores stocked with in-demand merchandise like notebooks and pens as well as products unique to the individual school’s student body requires a data-fueled, technologically enabled merchandising approach.

“The product assortment we have in our stores is customized,” Malat says. “Not just from a school logo perspective, but also by the unique demographic of that campus. We are curating the right assortment for our story. How do we do that? We do it through data and our merchandising system and having a deep understanding of the campuses that we serve.”

Barnes & Noble has mountains of data on the student population’s they serve thanks to POS data, an engaging mobile app, as well as an annual customer survey that provides unprecedented information on major student shopping trends.

“Through our sales and inventory system we are able to pinpoint the trends in each individual store and compare them against the general trends we are seeing across the company,” Malat says. “We also heavily leverage our research panel.”

Barnes & Noble College conducts annual qualitative research of more than 10,000 consumers, on both a national and hyperlocal level. This research allows BNC’s campus partners to understand the nuances and particulars of what is unique to their campus and then how they can build their brand, personalize the retail experience, and drive revenue.

In addition to the formalized market research, BNC gathers information on and communicates with its customer base thanks to its widely popular mobile app. The retailer has seen tremendous growth through its mobile channel and continues to invest in new functionality to increase shopper engagement, including a geo location feature. The app’s geo location capabilities allow BNC to actively communicate with and market to students while they are in-store and gauge their reaction to in-store experiences as well.

Each BNC store is designed to match the unique needs of the student body. One key feature of the locations is their store-within-a-store pop up. This special section is re-merchandised throughout the year to correspond to different campus events like back-to-school, finals week, graduation, etc.

“We are reimagining college retail by creating really personalized and highly curated concept shops that are more reflective of how students shop,” says Malat. “We are driving a continuous flow of traffic into our stores now because of how we're procuring and flowing goods into our stores. We are also creating these social hubs on our campuses. We put on more than 3,000 events per year in our stores.”

On example of the special events BNC products is with its apparel partner Champion. The athletic apparel company hosts DIY workshops as part of their Champion concept shops located in select BNC locations. The workshops allow students to customize their purchases and put their unique stamp on their college themed clothing, helping build a solid relationship between the student, school and the apparel brand.