Have you ever wondered about how to sell products to the college market?  This article explains how to access the college market from two main perspectives; the food service side and the bookstore side. In other words, how to access these students.

Of course, there are many opportunities for businesses that sell products and services of all kinds to the colleges themselves; things like computers, software, furniture, and grounds keeping.  But here I’m talking about consumer products that can be sold, through intermediaries, directly to the students.

I’m talking about selling both food and beverage through the food service operations and convenience stores on campuses.  And about marketing merchandise from apparel, to stationary to cosmetics, through the college bookstores (which now sell far more than just books).

Facts and Figures

On any given year (or day) in the U.S. about 20 M students are attending college.

They’re going to any one of the 4,000 or so colleges in the U.S. – 3,886 colleges, to be precise. Half of these colleges have less than 2,000 students, so, smallish.  But the other half – 2,000 colleges, are much larger, going up to 50,000 students for Arizona State, or The Ohio State College, for example.  1,500 of these larger colleges are public or state colleges, both 4 year and community colleges. And the remaining 500 are private colleges.

College foodservice

Food Service

All colleges offer some kind of dining option; from a community college that offers a no-frills cafeteria option, to a large 4-year college with as many kinds of food options as a small town.  These options range from meal plans where students pay on a semester basis, to access usually all-you-can eat dining halls at different times of the day, to retail food courts in the student union buildings or other common areas on campus.

Larger colleges also have convenience stores that sell grocery items that students can purchase to make food in their dorms or off-campus housing.

All these dining services are either run by the college itself, known as self-operated, or outsourced to specialized food service management company.  The largest of these companies are three different companies who compete with one another; Compass Group, Sodexo and Aramark.  And there are smaller, regional companies as well.

If you have a food or beverage product that could fit into this market, how do you access it?  Essentially, you need to access the decision-makers, at several different points, to gain access. If the food service is self-operated that is a more localized decision made through college purchasing department.  Or if the food service is contracted out, as described above, it is a more complex process.  It involves selling to the purchasing office of the contract management company and also perhaps, their wholesale distributors, such as U.S. Foods or Sysco.  Read my eBook ‘Let’s Do Lunch’ to learn more about this process.  Or read this article about the differences between selling to self-operated college food service or outsourced.

College bookstore

College Bookstores

Switching gears to the bookstore side; first a few facts.  Virtually all colleges have a bookstore; even though a lot of textbooks are sold online now, or the course materials are made available electronically. College bookstores still exist to sell items like college logo sportswear, coffee mugs and the like, as well as stationary and sundries; similar to a drug-store.

As in food service, there are two ways a college can operate its bookstore. The first is they can run it themselves, which is known as self-operated.  Meaning the college has a department with its own employees who specialize in all the functions of running a retail store. From buying, to merchandising to operations.   And again, like in food service, the second way is for the college to outsource the bookstore to an independent company specializing in that type of business.  The two main companies that do this are Barnes and Noble, who also operate regular main street bookstores, but have a division dedicated to college bookstores.  The other company is Follett, which only specializes in college bookstores and has no off-campus stores.


So, how do you meet the buyers of these different organizations and pitch your items; the best way we know how is to participate in the different industry associations that serve these specialized markets.  For college food service, the main organization is the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS).  And for the bookstore side, the National Association of College Stores (NACS) and their trade show, CAMEX.   Or hire a qualified consultant, (hint, that’s what we do; read about our services) to help speed up the process.

This is only an overview of the market; we’ll be publishing further articles here soon with more details about these markets, so stay tuned!

College students