Those attending Sheffield university can rest easy in the knowledge their campus c-store manager Rachel Fletcher knows exactly what students want.
Edging towards its seventh year of trading, The Village Store at the University of Sheffield continues to fulfil its purpose as the sole convenience store on site and a handy pit-stop on the way back from a lecture.
While the Nisa-supplied 882sq ft store in the heart of the Ranmoor and Endcliffe student accommodation offers an extensive range of products, store manager Rachel Fletcher is frank about what the store really focuses on. “For us, it is all about cheap and convenient,” she admits.
“For students, price is the overriding factor. We understand that they are just starting off their solo lives and need to learn to budget so we have to take that into consideration,” Rachel says.
As such, she’s quickly learnt that students’ shopping needs are quite simple, “whether it’s at the start of term when students have recently implemented a strict budgeting strategy, or towards the end of term when money might be starting to run low”. And what always seems to be on their shopping list is cereal. “Cereal is a really big student thing as it sells in such high volumes. The majority of students on this site are first years – they are 18 years old, just left home for the first time, their cooking skills are not always all that good, so cereal is an easy option for them. Any of the cereals that are pricemarked will sell in high volumes.”
Rachel says another student favourite is bread and spreads, with chocolate bars not far behind.
“We tend to sell things that are dead easy to cook or eat, and another example of easy student food is toast. We sell bread in high volumes,” she says. “Anything you can put on toast always sells well, such as Nutella, other chocolate spreads, peanut butter, jams.
“Chocolate bars are also massive sellers for us and if it is pricemarked at £1, it will sell quickly. Same with sweets like Haribo and Jelly Babies, which are extremely popular. I think the 18-year-olds recognise it, know they like Haribo, so will grab a bag for that evening to snack on.”
While most students opt for the simple snacking options, there are some that attempt to cook a proper meal, according to Rachel. “Some students do attempt a bit of cooking, so products such as herbs and spices do shift steadily,” Rachel adds. “Pasta sauces are dead easy to heat up, so they sell well for us, too.
“What we’ve found is that the students here don’t tend to cook for their entire flat. The apartments hold between six and 10 students, but you very rarely see a group of six students come in and say, ‘We’ll buy this and make a meal together’ – it is very much students cooking simple dishes for themselves. For the vast majority it is still very much about convenience and what is quick and easy to make and eat.”
In a bid to offer the ultimate in convenience, the store offers an online delivery service at the start of term. “When the students enrol and go through the induction process online, they go through our site and can purchase items for when they arrive,” Rachel explains. “If it is ordered before a certain date, then we will deliver it to their room for their arrival.
“We don’t offer everything through the site, but it includes products such as pans, cups, mugs, utensils and bedding packs. We have just introduced coat hangers, for example.”
The university attracts a number of overseas students and Rachel says the service is perfect for them as they can order bulky items in advance. Even though the international contingent is small, Rachel believes it’s still worth catering for them. “The majority of our customer base is English students, but as most of the international students choose to be in the heart of the main campus we have historically always had an international section.”
She says the world foods have appeal among students of all nationalities, with instant noodles a must stock. “If you have a kettle, then the products are very simple to make. And that is a big winner for all students. We have a few noodle packets from King Asia and they will sell really well with everyone, not just international students. We sell the noodles to staff at lunchtime, too, because they can take then them back to their office or staff room.”
Wherever the students come from, they are united in their failure to fill their baskets with the one category that is soaring in other c-stores: fresh food. Your five-a-day is certainly not top of students’ shopping lists, Rachel points out.
“We are not massive on fresh fruit and vegetables and ingredients,” Rachel says. “Less than 5% of our overall sales are things that you can take away and make an actual meal from, such as fruit, vegetables and meat. I think that this statistic alone is enough to sum up what our customer base is after.”
As a result, a large part of the store’s sales come from their frozen offering. “With our frozen section, we may as well just stock pizzas,” Rachel jokes. “You could stock the entire frozen section with pizzas and sell out comfortably, they are that popular.
“We do sell a few other frozen lines such as ice creams, which sell well in the summer or around exam time, but for us it is pizzas. The easy, convenient aspect makes them one of our top sellers overall. Chicago Town is probably the best-seller. It’s a recognisable brand and they are pricemarked.”
Students aren’t particularly discerning about their alcohol choices, either, with price again a deal maker. Says Rachel: “With wine, they don’t care for types – it is all about the price point. We have never had students come in saying ‘I drink such and such a variety, or from this region’. It is simply ‘there’s a bottle of white wine and it’s £5.99 – brilliant, that’ll do me’.”
It’s the same with spirits. “We go through far more Glen’s than Smirnoff, just because of the price difference. Gin has started to make an increase over the past year, which surprised us as it’s often a little bit pricier. But vodka is still the way forward for us. Slightly more alternative spirits such as sambuca and tequila will go steady throughout the year as people buy them for parties.
“As exam time comes to an end, you slowly go from a steady stream of customers to a huge influx, with the students all ready to go out. For us, that is when alcohol sales boom.”
Despite being the only store on site, it does still face competition from nearby multiples. “Really locally, there aren’t many alternatives, but for the students who walk down to the university site for lectures, they pass through Broomhill and there is a Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and so on there.
Nearby discounters also add to the pressure. “Everyone nowadays, but especially students, are very price aware. With competition from Aldi and Lidl, it is incomparable as we cannot compete with that.”
However, Rachel says that since Nisa took over supplying the store both range and price have improved. “I think the range we have got from Nisa has very much improved our offer over the past year or so. Since we moved to Nisa, their range has been so much more accessible and at a price that we can afford to sell to students at.”
Being able to offer Co-op products has also been a bonus. “We now have a recognisable brand with Co-op, and the students know they are buying something they can rely on, and that helps greatly.”
For Rachel, getting used to the simple products mentality wasn’t easy at first, but after seven years of managing the university c-store, it is fair to say she has graduated with honours.
The Village Store, University of Sheffield
Store size: 882 sq ft
Average basket spend: £3.50
Key products: Snacks, sauces and frozen pizzas
Opening hours: Monday-Friday 8am to 11pm; Saturday 9am to 11pm; Sunday 11am to 8pm