University Students Shift Focus: Trends, Lifestyle Choices, and Missed Retail Opportunities in Back-to-School Shopping [Feature/Interviews]

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When discussing back to school shopping, focus is usually directed at public school students while university students can be forgotten, especially those making the transition from high school to first year. Lisa Hutcheson, a Retail Strategist and Managing Partner at J.C. Williams Group, Jeff Wilson, a Residence Life Manager at Dalhousie University, and Lesley Hawkins, Vice President, Retail, adidas, discuss new trends, residence living, and future possibilities for back to school shopping for university.

What Students Are Buying

Compared to back to school shopping for public school students where the focus is directed at backpacks, university students are more focused on apparel, lifestyle products, and residence items. For this year, Hutcheson says there has been an increased interest in apparel compared to previous years.

Lisa Hutcheson

“From a retail perspective we are definitely noticing more focus particularly on apparel and shoes. People have been either working or doing their education hybrid, and students spend a lot of time at home and completing their high school mostly at home so this is an opportunity for students. First year is always an opportunity for students to express and discover themselves,” says Hutcheson.

Image: The Dalhousie University Bookstore
adidas The Well (Image: adidas)

Hawkins also noticed an increase of students leaning towards apparel compared to previous years, with a main focus on purchasing the adidas lifestyle products such as its Original Line.

“We certainly saw there were a lot more people out in retail this year versus last year, which is really good given that last year it was quite good as everybody was coming out of Covid. We found more people were shopping for apparel than they were last year and there was a real thirst for our Originals Line, which is our lifestyle offering,” says Hawkins.

Hawkins says the Originals Line is performance wear blended with lifestyle so students can wear its products not just for workouts, but for daily wear which makes it easy for students. In terms of footwear, Hawkins says anything based around soccer culture has been popular such as the brands Stan Smith, Samba, Superstars, Gazelle – all are adidas Originals.

Lesley Hawkins

“People want to shop for the Originals. Once again, it is more of that lifestyle, look, and feel. I can say that as a mom who just had to drop her daughter off for the first year of university, I can definitely say apparel seems to be so much more of what they are actually consuming. Students are very much focused on the product they are taking to school that needs to meet multiple needs – it is not just here is what I am going to wear to the gym and here is what I am going to wear in class, it is a fixated product they can wear that really cuts across many different activities,” says Hawkins.

Back To School at adidas Halo Store at CF Toronto Eaton Centre (Image: Dustin Fuhs)
adidas Halo Store at CF Toronto Eaton Centre (Image: Dustin Fuhs)

In addition to the adidas Originals Line, Hawkins says it also provides options for students to customize their products such as backpacks, apparel, and even footwear.

“We have something for everybody in that it is accessible, we have a depth of colour, variety of sizes – and that really makes a difference. And for us, it is making sure we have campaigns around it that give a showcase of what the latest trends are in terms of apparel and footwear to make it easier for students to know what exactly they want and could be wearing,” says Hawkins.

“Students Embracing The School”

Image: The Dalhousie University Bookstore

Wilson, who has been a Residence Life Manager at Dalhousie University for several years has noticed that this year, the first thing students did was head towards the campus bookstore to purchase Dalhousie branded apparel.

Jeff Wilson

“I noticed a lot of students moving in and then going straight to the bookstore to buy something saying Dal on it. I am sure this was always happening, but it just seemed super obvious this year that while their parents, guardian, or whoever was dropping them off was still here and paying for things – they dropped their stuff off and went straight to the bookstore,” says Wilson.

Wilson said students were coming back with products such as sweaters, rugby shirts, hats, and shirts – anything that had the Dal name and logo on it. Wilson says school branded items are popular as students have a “desire to be associated” and don’t want to stand out by not having Dal clothing and Hawkins says it increases a sense of community.

The Bookstore at Carleton University

Hawkins experienced the need of school branded clothing when she dropped off her daughter to university this September.

“Once we got there and we were welcomed to the university, the first thing Carleton did was give her a Ravens sweater which was great as she immediately was part of a team and community.” says Hawkins. “But there have been subsequent visits to the bookstore to get more Carleton Ravens product, as apparently you can never get enough!”

Dormitory – What Students Are Bringing

Image: Dalhousie University

Wilson says students are purchasing the usual dorm items such as lamps, battery operated lights, fans, and decorations to make their rooms feel more like home, but has noticed more students making their beds more comfortable. Another item that is popular, although not needed, is mini fridges. Wilson says students tend to think they will need them, but are often not used and get thrown out at the end of the year.

“I think the comfort of the bed is usually a big concern for people. I am noticing more people arriving with things to make their bed more comfortable whether it be mattress pads or foam toppers on top of whatever decorations make the students feel comfortable and happy. If it were me and I was coming back, I would make sure I had a fan and I would make sure I made the bed as comfortable as possible,” says Wilson.

On the technology side, Wilson says the increase of streaming services in residence has caused a decrease in big technology items.

“No TVs, no printers, and no big desktop computers – those big technology things we do not see anymore which is making move-in day a lot easier for students,” says Wilson. “No one is really bringing TV’s, or it is certainly becoming more rare. You might have people who play video games that are still bringing TVs, but almost no one is moving in with a TV anymore. It seems like everyone is coming in with a laptop or tablet,” says Wilson.

The Bookstore at Carleton University

As for what to bring, Hawkins says when she was helping her daughter get ready to move, Carleton University made it easy by providing a checklist of what is needed. After arrival if anything was missing, Hawkins says it was easy to find later on.

“The school did a pretty good job of helping the parents and students as best as possible. In terms of if you needed to get something, it was easy as the school directed you in the right way and there was no challenge in finding what you needed,” says Hawkins.

Wilson and Hutcheson say although schools try and make it easy for students, there are still ways for retailers to be more involved on campus.

Missed Retail Opportunities on Campus

Image: The Dalhousie University Bookstore

At Dalhousie University, Wilson says students can easily purchase items from the bookstore and have it delivered to their residence for move-in day – but more can be done to make shopping easier to access for students, not just for move-in but throughout the year.

Both Wilson and Hutcheson say one way retailers can make it easier would be to have pop-up shops on campus. One retailer, Samsung, Wilson said had a pop-up on campus during the move in days at Dalhousie and was successful.

“For the first time I noticed Samsung had a huge presence on campus selling phones and tablets.They rolled in a trailer and then it folded down, it was like a pop up Samsung store. They had an army of people here trying to get people to their little social media booth where they would do a photoshoot, product testing, and they were giving away hats and shirts. Some phone providers like Telus are around, but this was the first technology retailer doing this,” says Wilson.

Wilson said just on one of the move-in days there were around 6,000 people wandering on campus – a missed opportunity for retailers.

For new students, it can be overwhelming moving into residence, let alone trying to find your way in a new city. For those who fly in, it can be difficult to shop, especially if they don’t have access to a car. Yes, students can purchase products online, but is there a better way for students to get what they need? Wilson and Hutcheson say retailers could be more involved by having pop-up stores available or even kiosks where students and parents can purchase and have the product delivered later.

“In the first year, parents are sending off their kids and they are going to be living away, and they just seem to want to make sure the kids have everything that they need – so there is definitely more spending and some retailers could really optimize on this,” says Hutcheson .

Wilson says although it can be difficult to partner with the university, it can be easier for retailers to get permission from the student union.

Image: The Dalhousie University Bookstore

Wilson and Hutcheson provided an example of retailers that would be beneficial for pop-ups, which could include Ikea where they sell their student package or even to help students order online, Sephora, Best Buy, and athletic stores like Lululemon. Additionally, Hutcheson says retailers like Ikea and Amazon could partner with universities to provide dorm room essential packages and curate products specifically for first year students. By doing this, it not only makes products accessible, but also introduces brands students may not be aware of if they are international students.

“It is about making it easy, accessible, and thinking about what students want and I do think there is going to be opportunities to do pop-ups within the schools and as the textbook business changes, the schools will have some extra space and there would also be an opportunity for the schools to revenue share as well,” says Hutcheson. “I think that we are very aware of elementary and high school students, but nobody really targets the university students. There are a lot of them out there and a lot of them living away, so they need furniture, home decor, and things that are inexpensive that are still fun and show their personality and I think it is an overlooked market.”

Shelby Hautala
Shelby Hautala
Shelby Hautala is a Retail Insider journalist currently based out of Toronto. She has experience writing for local newspapers and also internationally for Helsinki Times while she lived in Finland. Shelby holds a Bachelor of Journalism Honours degree from the University of King’s College and a Social Work degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax.

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