According to the University of Kansas bookstore’s director, Jennifer O’Connor, the biggest challenge for modern bookstores is that people think they just sell books. 


“People don’t always think of the other things a bookstore can offer,” said O’Connor. “We have to constantly overcome the fact that we are more than just a bookstore, showing that we have things for the community, students, and alumni beyond books.”


Tight textbook margins and the industry’s shift toward digital lead the college bookstore to turn to Jayhawk merchandise as their source of profit, and they find themselves competing against big box retailers — and even their own athletics department.


On this episode of “The Commerce Marketer Podcast,” O’Connor discusses how the KU Store deals with their evolving industry, and also how their lean digital marketing capitalizes on audience engagement to market a niche product to a small audience.


As part of a non-profit associated with the university, the KU Store’s “small but mighty” marketing team is used to working with limited resources. O’Connor shares workarounds they’ve developed to overcome technological limitations, but their main tool has been using social media and email to drive engagement and promotions to exclusive items.


“We’re also lucky that for us it’s not about making money, it’s about staying relevant — that  gives us opportunities to try different things,” O’Connor explained. “We’re always trying new things to find that niche that gets students in there.”


One of those new things was a pet fashion show for National Pet Day, which the KU Store announced on social, promoted with email, and screened on Facebook Live. Pets paraded down the catwalk in KU Store-exclusive apparel, which in turn drove users to the website to make the purchases.


“We want to bring that human side to the bookstore,” O’Connor said. “Because while we are retail this is the KU community and we want our customers to be part of it.”


Events like these matter. With major competition for collegiate apparel, differentiating themselves by creating a sense of community is critical to the KU Store’s success.


“For us, it’s a unique collection with a unique customer,” O’Connor said. “We’re really curated around the people who love KU, KU supports, and the university they’ve been a part of.”