You'd think retailing to students would be easy. But gone are the days when simply stocking a few packs of pasta and a couple of tins of beans was enough. Students, like all discerning shoppers, expect to find a great selection of products on the shelves of their local c-store. And retailer John Inman knows this better than most, having traded out of his Sussex University campus store for the past 15 years.
With some 9,000 students on the books at the university, there's never a shortage of business during term time. However, John and his wife Philomena have had to learn to cope with quiet weekends and seasonal trade as the students disappear from the campus on the outskirts of Brighton over the Christmas, Easter and summer breaks.
John is currently in the middle of a 10-year lease at his store in Bramber House, which has catered for students since the late 1960s. He trades as an independent as he finds this gives him the freedom to fit in with the university term times.
The store rarely has shoppers other than the students, as John explains: "We have to totally revolve around the university," he says. "There's not a great deal of outside trade other than the odd visitor and the bus drivers who pass through the campus."
watching the pennies
It's no surprise that students are on the lookout for a bargain and shop on a tight budget. Says John: "Students expect to be able to nip in and out of the store and pick up items at close to supermarket prices. We wouldn't get away with charging the prices I see in some c-stores. Although I can't quite match supermarket prices, I have to get as close as possible. If you add in what most students would have to pay to get to a supermarket on a bus, then we can offer some good prices. We're quite lucky that a Tesco Express can't open up right on our doorstep."
The typical basket spend at the store can vary massively, but is on average about £3. "Although about half will buy just one item such as a drink or packet of crisps, about a quarter will buy two to three items and another quarter will top up with a reasonable size basket," says John. "The beginning of term is a very busy time for us as the students' parents will often come in and spend quite a bit on getting their sons and daughters stocked up for the coming weeks."
With the university attracting quite a few foreign students and with shoppers now more adventurous, John believes it's important he stocks a variety of products. However, this doesn't mean he neglects those student stalwarts. "We cater for a number of different tastes but there is always a big demand from all the students for 'instant' food such as frozen pizza and chips," he adds.
"We have twice-weekly deliveries of frozen, chilled and ambient products and I usually make a trip to my local Booker depot two or three times a week. We also have about 30 different suppliers. They include Kerry Foods, a sandwich delivery, and health food such as nuts, bagged snacks and flavoured teas from Infinity Foods in Brighton."
Over the years, John has had to alter his product range to suit changing lifestyles. "We've lost a bit of our main grocery trade as fewer students use us to buy their main meals, but we've increased sales of drinks and snacks," he explains. "We're selling more bottled water than ever before and bulky items that would be hard for students to get back from the supermarket without a car also sell well. There's a good bookshop on campus so we only sell a small amount of stationery now."
Alcohol is also a good seller for John, although he is restricted about exactly what he is allowed sell by the university as part of his lease. "We've got an agreement with the university not to sell spirits and alcopops," says John. "It's not really a problem, though, as spirits don't offer great margins. We concentrate on beer, wine and cider. It's the same for the national lottery and scratchcards. It's something we've got used to and I suppose I can see the logic in it. It's usually quite easy to control sales of alcohol as almost everyone at the university is over 18 and carries union ID cards."
highs and lows
It's not easy dealing with the peaks and troughs of the university trade and ideally John would prefer to see a greater number of events taking place at the university to boost sales throughout the holiday breaks. If there were more people on the campus at weekends, John would extend his hours beyond the current five hours he opens on a Saturday and Sunday.
"I'd like to see more events and conferences taking place over the summer gap and have suggested the university hold a car boot at the weekend," says John.
"A while ago we did try longer opening hours at the weekend but with there being no lectures and none of the mature students about, we weren't making enough money."
John believes a proposal to introduce two-year degrees and a four-term year could help business and an initiative of his own has helped boost the coffers.
At the beginning of term John sells a selection of household goods. He explains: "I've sold items such as microwave ovens, kettles, sandwich toasters and bedding at the beginnings of term. They're small one-off displays that we mainly get on sale or return from Booker."
He's also open to new ideas: "I'm willing to try out new things but they have to be worth it. I considered installing a bake-off section but I think we would be hard-pushed to sell fresh bread out of term time. We also offered a dry-cleaning service for a while, but it didn't really receive the demand it needed."
He's hopeful the future will offer more opportunities for expansion as a new residential block is due to open. "If I was offered more space I would probably take it," he says. "The problem is we have no control over the market and the number of students coming in. The university would have to do more to ensure there was a reason for us to extend our hours or increase in size."
While John doesn't have any direct competition from the major multiples, he knows it's important to move with the times. "Our survival is dependent on hard work like any other retailer, really. We've got quite a unique setup here, revolving entirely around the university, which isn't always easy. It's important to find the right solution to match your location.
"There are always ways to improve what we're doing, but so far I think we've managed quite well."

Factfile


Store size 1,200sq ft
Number of employees 6 (4 part-time)
Weekday opening hours 8.30am-7pm
Weekend hours 12.30pm-5.30pm

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