Business booms with the return of students

Back-to-school season means developing new customers for companies on and around campus.

Jennifer Bissell

Crowding into a fenced-off tailgate party, University of Minnesota first-year students waited under brightly lit canopies for Target employees to open the gates to the store’s after-hours shopping event Sept. 1.

Some stood in line to win Target brand snack food and laundry detergent from games like lasso golf while others sampled free dry-rubbed steak and quesadillas.

When the store opened, the employees herded the class of 2014 through iron gates, and the students cheered and clapped as they barreled into the store.

The now-annual “Target run” may be one of the most visible marketing tactics aimed at new students, but it is just one of the many ways businesses have been zeroing in on potential lifetime customers around campus.

While the back-to-school season means starting college and living away from home for the first time for many students, businesses can see it as the beginning of new consumer relationships.

When students start college, companies like Target stop seeing students as part of a family and start seeing them as adult consumers, Carlson School of Management marketing professor Mark Bergen said.

“Students can turn out to be customers with a high lifetime value that can have many years of lifetime sales associated with them,” Bergen said. “But you have to pick them up early because it’s the first time they are away from home and you need to let them know who you are.”

The “Target run” is an opportunity for students to visit The Quarry’s nearby store off 35W, pick up items they may have forgotten at home, get free bags of toiletries and snacks and mingle with thousands of their classmates as part of the annual new student Welcome Week.

To Target, the event is also a time for the company to make itself known to the class.

“I would hope that they felt a connection and really felt that they could get everything on their list,” Target spokeswoman Tara Schlosser said. “We really want them to know right away, from their first experience their freshman year, that Target is here for them.”

Store team leader Jen Hotop anticipated 4,500 visitors this year. Two years ago, only 2,000 students attended the events, said Beth Lingren Clark, director for Orientation and First-Year Programs at the University.

 Revenue from the “Target run” and overall                      back-to-college season is on par with the holiday season, Hotop said, estimating that roughly 30 percent of the store’s regular customers are students.

“This is our Christmas,” Hotop said. “Only the prep is bigger.”

This year the store ran nearly 30 coach buses back and forth from campus, and despite the 18 additional registers, the line still zigzagged around the store.

Aside from Target’s presence at Welcome Week, at least 57 businesses sponsored this year’s events through participating in the Explore U vendor fair, donating prizes and purchasing ad space.

“Mostly they want access to the students to promote what they are selling and [to] create behaviors early,” Lingren Clark said.

“We don’t partner or sponsor with everyone,” Clark said, noting that only companies with intentions that aligned with the program’s philosophy could participate. “Sometimes we are criticized for selling our soul by parents, but the students like it. They like the free stuff, seeing what’s going on and what’s available.”

First-year Megan Feltz said she enjoyed the free food and learning more about the surrounding community at Explore U.

“We’re lucky that we get these types of opportunities,” Feltz said. “There’s all this information right at our fingertips and whatever we want is right here.”

Earphone technology company Hearing Components purchased a table at Explore U, and business development sales manager Jeff Koontz said the event was a great way to interact with the students and make a lasting first impression.

“If you don’t offer something unique, different and of value, someone will just try it and move on to the next thing,” Koontz said. “So we’re looking to give a much better experience than that so that students can continue to enjoy the breadth of products we have.”

Local businesses have tried marketing tactics outside of Welcome Week as well.

Sally’s Saloon and Eatery put up a welcome back sign on its patio, Stadium Village Bookstore purchased the billboard above Stub & Herbs, and Comcast has canvassed Dinkytown, offering special promotions and scratch cards to win prizes.

Comcast field sales advisor Jeff Lane said after the company had recognized the high volume of sales in University neighborhoods during this time of year, the company decided to increase its sales effort in the area.

The company increased its availability and technical efforts and started to offer sales based on area zip codes ranging from 20 to 40 percent off for students.

“We’ve recognized their value to us, so we want to be a value to them as well,” Lane said, adding that Comcast has always believed that after customers try their services once, they’ll always want them.

 “It’s all about the customer — meeting those needs, having them understand you and creating value,” Bergen said. “At the core of every company is its relationship with the customer and the customer’s thoughts, feelings and connection with the company. It’s paramount.”