Target steps up game to court college crowd

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MINNEAPOLIS — In the age of online shopping, Target is trying new ways to connect with college students while bringing stores closer to campuses as it opens new smaller-format locations.

“How we’re reaching college students has changed,” said Joshua Thomas, a Target spokesman. “As consumers are changing, so has our strategy and how we can service students.”

For more than 15 years, the Minneapolis-based retailer has played host to after-hours shopping events replete with DJs and school mascots, busing tens of thousands of students from campuses to Target stores.

This fall, Target is paring back the number of busing events as it tries other strategies to reach college students, an increasingly important demographic for its growth strategy.

It is testing a new service called “Shop Now, Pickup Later,” a spin on the buy online pickup in store programs that many retailers, including Target, have begun offering in recent years.

In the college-focused pilot program, students at six universities including Arizona State University and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas can pre-order online from a curated list of about 300 items such as sheets, lounge chairs and mini-fridges and then pick them up weeks later around move-in time at a designated spot near campus.

“No need to haul it all from home,” Target says on its website. “Have those big bulky items like furniture, bedding, appliances and more delivered close to campus.”

At the same time, Target is reshaping its marketing outreach to students as it opens more stores on the edge of campus. In July, the company opened four more such stores. At two of them, near the University of Cincinnati and University of North Carolina, the retailer will offer complimentary rides to the stores in late August and early September through a partnership with Gotcha Ride, which runs free shuttles on some campuses through corporate sponsorships.

In addition, Target is experimenting with a two-day pop-up shop right on the UNC campus, bringing items including dorm-room decor, lighting and storage units closer to students while promoting the new nearby store.

College students, a typically budget-strapped demographic, were once overlooked by retailers. But these days, retailers including Target and Amazon are increasingly courting them. The hope is that if they can hook them at a young age, they will become lifelong customers. After all, going to college is the first time many students begin buying more than clothing as they look to outfit their dorm room or first apartment.

“Heading off to college is a pretty pivotal life moment,” Thomas said. “We see it as an opportunity to establish ourselves in new ways or deepen our affinity with them.”