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How Barnes & Noble College Connects To Gen Z: Community And Curated Experiences

Marketing’s impact now extends across all channels a shopper uses to get information and complete purchases. That’s why Ken Wincko believes he’s not just the VP of Marketing for Barnes & Noble College — he’s an “orchestrator.” His job “transcends all of the channel touch points, everything in-store, whether it’s events and signage, to digital channels, like our mobile app, e-Commerce platform and beyond,” Wincko said during the latest episode of Retail Remix, a new podcast series from Retail TouchPoints.

“One of the critical things about being a marketer, particularly right now, is to be able to create compelling, consistent interactions across all touch points,” said Wincko. “So, if I were to use a non-traditional title, the word that comes to mind is ‘orchestrator.’ It’s really about making sure that we’re working very closely with our merchants, working closely with our store teams, with operations, other internal departments, as well as with our end clients.”

Barnes & Noble College serves more than 1,500 institutions across the U.S., and Wincko is laser-focused on ensuring his team delivers best-in-class experiences to these local communities. A critical part of achieving that goal is meeting the needs of its primary audience: Gen Z. Through its insights platform, Barnes & Noble College has been able to understand the wants, needs and expectations of Gen Z consumers. Perhaps even more important, the retailer has been able to delve into the psychology and beliefs of these shoppers, which has guided its approach to omnichannel experience design. Wincko identified three key realities about this elusive, and increasingly powerful, demographic:

Reality 1: They want to contribute to a greater good.

Despite stereotypes that Gen Z is selfish and self-absorbed, Wincko noted that this generation is extremely kind and understanding. “They’re accepting and they’re compassionate,” he said. “Over 80% of consumers say they are empathetic to the issues and problems faced by others, and 93% believe in standing up for and helping others.”

For Barnes & Noble College, nearly two-thirds (63%) of Gen Zers select brands that mirror their core values. “From a retail perspective, they’re driven by purpose and practicality,” Wincko added. “So, I think really making sure that your brand stands for something is very, very critical to them in terms of engaging them and reaching them.”

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Reality 2: They want more store experiences that are curated to their lifestyles.

Mobile and social touch points certainly influence the Gen Z shopper journey, but 88% of students shop in stores, according to Wincko. To appeal to these consumers, Barnes & Noble College merchandises based on mindset and lifestyle. “Our approach is really catered to their mindset. Sometimes they’re very stressed out, so we want them to be able to find things very, very quickly,” he said. “But also, to appeal to their lifestyles, we set up concept shops, which is basically a store-within-a-store, and we rotate throughout the year. An example would be creating wellness shops that include drinkware, yoga mats, healthy snacks and wellness books.”

Barnes & Noble College also has established several brand partnerships, including one with Urban Outfitters, to engage the campus community. The retailer rolled out the experience in 10 locations where there weren’t standalone Urban Outfitters stores. The retailer was “excited about the opportunity to be able to be right in the heart of the campus,” Wincko said. “And at the same time, for our student base, we were able to bring a brand they love right into our store.”

Reality 3: They want to feel like they belong to a community.

Gen Z relies on peers and influencers to guide their decision making, so Barnes & Noble College attempts to reach and engage key influencers on each campus using social media. Should a local influencer decide to partner with the retailer, they’ll collaborate on events to help cultivate community. “We host more than 3,000 events nationally that are customized based on [our customers’] needs,” Wincko explained. “For example, we know that mental health is a big issue for Gen Z, and we’ve tailored events that will help them. We know they’re getting stressed out, getting towards midterms or finals, so we’ll host these events where they can have some fun, they come to the store, and they can unwind a little bit.”


Listen to the full episode of Retail Remix to hear more about how Barnes & Noble College extends this community concept across all channels.

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