Fickle friends

Tallulah Speed looks at how two universities are retaining their customer base on campus

Despite the claims of near-destitution, it is a fact that many retailers see the modern student body as a set of walking wallets, and a brand-conscious sector with a lifetime of product loyalty ahead of them to bestow as they choose. Is it any wonder university catering facilities experience fierce competition from all sides, with takeaways, cafes, restaurants and supermarkets all vying for a piece of the pie?

In the face of such a litany of niche nibblers eroding profits from every angle today’s university offering must be a strong one. Where there was once a lady with a ladle and a hairnet doling out Mr Bumble-sized portions, there are now chef’s theatres, grab ’n’ go units, splashy advertising and delivery services, with universities keeping abreast of catering trends and new technologies. The challenge for HEI catering operations is to balance keeping ahead of changing fashions with finding a price point that’s fair in the buyer’s eyes.

At the University of Sheffield, competitive pricing is combined with a range of ongoing and seasonal promotions to encourage students to augment their order or try new things. These include a £3.50 meal deal or £2.90 for a creme, frappelatte or smoothie, and a particularly arresting month-long £1 coffee deal this January. While a bold strategy, according to Peter Anstess, Retail Operations Manager at the University, the promotion not only introduced coffee to a new audience but also built loyalty: “It caught the attention of people who may not otherwise have tried the coffee or may have previously made their own. It was extremely popular and created a huge amount of goodwill, which has ultimately carried through into subsequent months.”

However, the University of Sheffield’s central financial incentive scheme is surely its GeniUS card system, which launched in September 2012. The card rewards users with five points per pound spent at any of the venues operated by the HEI. Each point is equivalent to one penny, which can be redeemed on GeniUS rewards, and a dedicated website is available to track accumulated points, top-up the card and promote offers.

“We had previously used stamped cards for coffee purchases,” comments Anstess, “but wanted a card that rewarded all purchases and allowed redemption against any purchase.” In doing so, the University subtly underlined their unique position in a crowded marketplace – the unity between their multifarious catering offerings. With the loyalty scheme, students can enjoy a variety of cuisines at a wide range of outlets but still retain the advantage of boosting points within one central account.

In addition to its use as a loyalty scheme, the GeniUS card also functions as a food voucher for students in catered accommodation, automatically topping up £47.60 per week, enough for 10 basic meals. This system gives catered students the freedom to make their own meal choices, while restricting that allowance purely to food and non-alcoholic drink purchases, delivering it in slow-drip style to ensure purchases are spread throughout the term.

At the University of Kent, the equivalent system is their ‘Real Meal Deals’, where students receive a discount of up to 40%  for paying for their food in advance for the year. Although in this case the systems for catered students and loyalty points are kept separate, like the University of Sheffield they have recognised financial rewards as key to keeping customers happy. “Rewarding loyalty is important to us,” says Keith Williams, Head of Trading at the University. “We offer loyalty schemes applicable to all our catering facilities – for example our ‘coffee loyalty card’ whereby you purchase nine coffees from any of our outlets and get a free coffee – and loyalty schemes specific to outlets – for example if you use a branded ‘Create’ reusable takeaway cup at Create Cafe, you get a discount on your coffee – to incentivise repeat business.” 

Yet despite this firm focus on prices, both Anstess and Williams are in agreement of its limited value. As Williams puts it: “It’s not all about financials – what keeps students coming back to dine on campus is so much more than that. It’s the quality of the food, the outstanding customer service, the extended service periods.” Anstess summarises: “Students do appreciate keen pricing, but they will buy once for price but will return only for quality and value.”

Part of the ‘value’ package involves keeping dining areas on campus in tune with students’ desires, both aesthetically and practically. While the university benefits from a high degree of convenience for most students, this is not enough without welcoming surrounds. “Students want the geographical convenience of the university cafes,” notes Anstess, “but don’t want to feel like they are in an institutional environment. Walk past any Starbucks near a university and you will see that it isn’t all about price – many students will pay higher prices to enjoy a particular level of service or environment.” Anstess names mixed and comfortable seating, gentle acoustics and comfortable temperature as three key environmental elements in a dining area, while practically speaking, Wi-Fi comes top of the list for both universities, followed by a need for plug sockets – presumably for students to charge their Wi-Fi enabled devices.

Although perhaps all students can be tarred with the same brush when it comes to enjoying remote use of the internet, the same is not applicable in most areas of campus life, particularly given the broad spectrum of subjects and wide range of nationalities within most universities today – the University of Kent, for example, has had enrolments from over 145 countries. With this in mind, ‘variety’ is surely key to value, as one student’s cherished vegan salad is another’s inadequate meat-free nightmare. When asked about creating different dining areas, Williams is emphatic about its importance: “This has been our focus for over a decade – to create unique spaces across the campus, both to provide for the different types of experience that our varying student demographics are after, and to avoid duplication so that we offer a huge amount of choice.” Each outlet has a different character, along with a different menu – Tex-Mex and Latin American cuisine in Origins, Asian and fusion food in Dolche Vita – so students have a wide breadth of choice. Universities have the advantage of students being familiar with the space and what’s in it, rather than relying on footfall, and Williams says that for the modern student customer base, most meal choices aren’t dictated by radius but a considered decision:

“We find that people are willing to walk to where they want to eat, which goes to show that variety is very important and it becomes about destination dining rather than proximity.” In total, the University offers over 5,000 different products daily – something for everyone, you would hope. Additionally, fresh options invigorate people both sides of the counter. Williams clarifies: “Daily specials in our units are important as they stop the chefs getting menu fatigue as much as the customers.” Over at the University of Sheffield, Anstess agrees that an ever-changing menus benefits more than just the students: “Variety across the outlets is essential. It is important to remember that undergraduates are here for 32 weeks per year but staff, postgrads, researchers and academics are here all year round and form a significant part of our customer base. Without a wide range on offer they will soon become bored and look elsewhere.”

Dining rituals and cuisine fashions can turn on a hairpin, and retaining students in the face of these changes can be a challenge. But in truth, the easiest way to learn is simply to listen, fine-tuning your catering operation in line with feedback. And you might discover something you never thought you would hear, as this story from Anstess demonstrates: “We were puzzled as to why our bottled cold drinks weren’t selling at our International College site until we were told that they are too cold. They said: ‘We prefer them at room temperature!’ We wouldn’t have guessed that one.” 

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