Retail Reimagined · Article

How College Stores Can Win Big with Gen Z Shoppers?

March 12, 2019

Gen Z students enter college with high expectations for everything from learning experiences to retail selection. Known for their individualism and empathy, this generation is already making waves throughout the fashion industry as the traditional brands favored by millennials struggle to keep up with Gen Z’s rapidly evolving tastes. How can college stores continue to align with the retail expectations of Gen Z students?

Gen Z students look for authenticity

As digital natives, Gen Z students have been raised in a hyperconnected world. Information is easily accessible, and shopping is a seamless experience whether online, in a store or on an app. While previous generations have looked toward traditional actors, musicians or brands for style influence, this generation does not. Gen Z shoppers have brought the rise of social media influencers.

A social media influencer can be anyone with an engaging, active voice on social media that has developed an audience, which trusts their opinion. Savvy Gen Z shoppers question too perfect, idealized images of life. This is why they turn to trusted online influencers to tell them about the best products.

Vogue reported that at the Fashion Culture Design Conference, a five-person panel discussed the behaviors of this next generation of trendsetters. “Authenticity is big. Five years into Instagram, if you post a picture that’s too nice, you get backlash,” Jeff Staple of Staple Design said.

“It’s all about the moment and having the freedom to be whoever they want to be,” BPCM Social Media and Digital Project Manager Maria Al-Sadek said.

Three ways college stores can align with the fashion expectations of Gen Z students

1. Give students, organizations and the campus community a voice in merchandise

The college store is more than retail. It reflects the campus community and invests in student success. It is also a terrific resource that can work to actively engage students with the campus.

For example, the Mississippi State University Bookstore frequently partners with the School of Human Sciences to help give design students the total design experience from a project’s conception through retail sales.

“We have worked directly with different classes and students. It helps foster a deeper connection between the store, the campus and the students. Dr. Black and Dr. Freeman have actually taken some of the samples of artwork from the store into their classrooms, and the students have voted on the designs. That input has helped produced some pieces that we currently have in the store.” Barnes & Noble College General Merchandise Manager Leonard Cotton said. “For Black History Month, we were able to get feedback from university offices and students. That feedback produced two t-shirts. One shirt was picked by faculty and staff and one shirt was purely picked by students. They’ve been really popular.”

2. Take national and local trends into account

While individualism matters to this generational cohort, they are also influenced by their peers. Both local and national style trends are likely to influence what the students on your campus want to see in your college store.

“Barnes & Noble College has a trend service we work with to help us monitor national student preferences. We also incorporate a lot of regional guidance from our college stores and our independent student research. Our entire team stays very tuned into student style idiosyncrasies on each campus we partner with,” Barnes & Noble College Vice President and Chief Merchandising Officer Joel Friedman said. “We make sure that decisions about colors, graphics, and sizing stay at the campus level. Every college store should represent its campus and students with the styles and options they want to see.”

3. Highlight your school’s brand

While mango mojito or aspen gold might have been hot fashion colors during the 2019 fashion week, college stores must stringently follow college apparel licensing guidelines. As brand ambassadors for the school, it is important that the college store protects the school’s brand and elevates fan enthusiasm with trendsetting college fan gear that undoubtedly displays school loyalty and pride.

“We serve as a conduit, overseeing the licensed vendors approved by colleges and universities,” said Friedman. “We use every resource we have to protect each school’s brand as established by the school itself. Every school is a little different, and we respect that, curating assortments of product from a variety of vendors to best satisfy each school’s specific mix of constituencies.”

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