Turning Students On To Online Shopping

The goal of many businesses is to create brand loyalty and attract lifetime customers who will eventually spend thousands of dollars over many years. This is what makes web-savvy college students such attractive targets for e-commerce companies.

Market research firm Student Monitor released a survey last month that reported that 95 percent of college students use the Web, and that one of the students’ most popular destinations was Amazon.com. But for the most part, students’ buying habits haven’t been fully developed yet.

“They don’t have any brand loyalty,” said Eben Miller, co-founder and CEO of Austin, Texas-based Collegestudent.com, which publishes more than 250 local campus guides at universities across the country. Collegestudent.com was started in 1996 by Miller and three other students at the University of Texas, as a way to help students find affordable housing.

Collegestudent.com was the feature of a panel at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival on Sunday, and the privately held company made it clear how its Web sites can influence students’ purchasing decisions.

Partnering For Expansion

On February 1st, Collegestudent.com announced a strategic partnership with the National Association of College Stores (NACS), the trade association representing more than 3,000 college and university retail stores, to launch Collegestore.com, which has the makings of a one-stop shop for students who are looking to buy everything from new and used textbooks and other school supplies to team apparel and computers.

What makes this deal significant is that Collegestudent.com has impressive penetration among students and is rapidly growing. By Fall of 1999, Collegestudent.com will have sites at 500 campuses, including the 408 universities attended by 8.5 million of the 16 million college students in the U.S. There are also plans to expand to Canada and even community colleges. Some of Collegestudent.com’s more popular campus guides get more than a million page views a month. At Boston College, 60 percent of the undergraduate population are registered users of Collegestudent.com.

In addition to housing and shopping resources, Collegestudent.com also provides free classified listings, ride boards, tutor boards and scholarship information. Collegestudent.com also has an exclusive deal that allows it to publish the official white pages and yellow pages from College Directory Publishing, the largest publisher of college directories in the nation.

“We get promoed in all the directories,” Miller says in his office a couple days after his panel appearance. He then flips through a directory and finds one of numerous ads for Collegestudent.com.

What Lies Ahead

The deal with College Directory Publishing also means Collegestudent.com can give students access to coupons. For example, a student looking for a restaurant in a certain area can log on to Collegestudent.com, find a pizza place and then print out coupons.

Collegestudent.com focuses “a lot of energy on penetrating a campus,” Miller said. The company hires students and runs promotions and giveaways to announce launches of its new sites. College students are often looking for two things: free stuff, and a way to save time, and Collegestudent.com is providing both.

Miller hopes to be able to let students register for classes online in the future. Considering that the site already will allow students to type in their schedule and manage their course list, this seems like a logical step toward making Collegestudent.com the first — and one of the most popular — sites that students visit.

The keys to success are “information resources, content and community,” Miller said, sounding like the CEO of a portal company, which is exactly what Collegestudent.com could become.

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