business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

I had a momentary flashback the other day when I saw in a local store a beleaguered parent pushing a cart crowded with storage bins, twin XL sheets, a Dirt Devil, a case of flavored water, microwaveable popcorn -- and still carrying a lengthy list.

It’s peak Back to College shopping season across America, and I will not be behind a cart this year. Thankfully.

Some 19 million college students will be heading off to colleges and universities in the coming weeks, and retailers can expect parents to shell out $25.5 billion this year to get their kids settled in, according to a new survey from Deloitte.

Interestingly, the survey found that in-store sales are expected to account for more than half (54%) of back-to-college sales with online to account for nearly one-quarter (24%) of sales. This means 22% of spend share - $5.6 billion - has not yet been designated to in-store or online, presenting a major opportunity for retailers to engage those shoppers completing their list now.

Once the last duffle bag is unpacked, I think there is an even bigger opportunity for retailers near campuses - particularly supermarkets - to connect with this slew of potential new customers.

My research suggests that nobody does that better than Meijer. The Midwest retailer has been hosting its popular “Meijer Mania” college shopping parties for more than 15 years.

Starting this week, some 45,000 incoming college freshman are expected to attend a total of 22 events at 19 colleges in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky and Wisconsin. The kids are bused from campus to in-store evening parties that feature a DJ, photo booth and interactive contests - and, of course, the ability to shop for dorm essentials.

(If you’re processing that 45,000 number, consider this: Meijer is expecting some 6,500 students at the Purdue University event, and 6,000 for the Michigan State bash. At a store. From 8 p.m. until as late as midnight. Wow.)

Meijer’s Cindy Cooper says the “Mania” nights are an opportunity for the kids to have a fun bonding experience with new classmates, shop, get samples and coupons – and for some, to learn to pronounce the retailer’s name for the first time.

Now I’m not suggesting supermarkets aim to emulate “Meijer Mania” in the next two weeks but rather connect with new students through social media platforms, pop-up shops, targeted advertising or that old-standby, the student discount.

When my daughter went to college in Winston-Salem, NC, I was envious of her choice of supermarkets within a 10-mile radius: Harris Teeter, Lowe’s, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Fresh Market, Publix and Walmart.

It took only two days to find out that Harris Teeter offered college students a 10% discount on all purchases, and that became her go-to store for next four years. I’ve read that this discount is offered at select Harris Teeter stores, and select Kroger stores offer a 5% discount for college students.

Admittedly, college kids are a transient bunch on a budget, but it’s never to soon to start a relationship with the next generation of consumers.

Comments? Send me an email at .

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