Building Loyalty With College Students
They say location is everything, and in Marty Johnson’s case, that’s certainly true. Johnson owns Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office in the Collegetown neighborhood of Ithaca, New York. Cornell University is adjacent to the store, and most of his customers — 60 percent students (mostly international), 20 percent administration, 20 percent general public — stroll by the shop every day. “My store is very convenient to the students,” Johnson says.
Becoming Uncle Marty
Johnson opened his store in September 2011, and to many of his international student-customers, he’s a surrogate member of their family. “I called the store ‘Uncle Marty’s’ because it’s a college market and I wanted that local feel,” Johnson says. “I wanted it to be a familiar name.”
The students often come to the store to just hang out. They pull a stool up to the counter (the store has a bar-like feel, Johnson says) to chat with him and the store’s team, or they sit at one of the tables and use the time to write letters home. “The longer they’re here, the better we have a chance to build that relationship,” Johnson says. “I enjoy them. It’s fun.”
And building relationships is what creates loyalty. Even if they don’t spend a lot of money each time they come, Johnson says, “Chances are, it’s going to come back around if we’ve done our duty to be there for them.”
Services Fit for a Student
Like many other colleges and universities, many of Cornell's students are from abroad. Likewise, much of Johnson’s business is in packing and international shipping, or serving the needs of those who live in the U.S. nine months out of the year, leave and return three months later.
He rents them mailboxes; provides printing, notary and passport services; and sells office supplies, greeting cards and gift wrapping. Most notably, Johnson offers off-site climate-controlled storage space over the summer and winter breaks. “That was something the market dictated that I hadn’t thought about ahead of time. I had to make it happen,” Johnson says.
For his customers’ smaller, lighter packages shipped within the U.S., the recent change to the FedEx Authorized ShipCenter® pricing discount enables him to be more competitive. “The new pricing converted a lot of [shipments] that, because of cost, would have gone Priority Mail, but now I ship them with FedEx Ground and FedEx Home Delivery®,” Johnson says.
“We get to know the students. It really helps make people come back because they feel they’re a part of the business. They feel like they have a vested interest in it.”
— Marty Johnson
Owner, Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office
Marketing, up Close and Personal
Over the years, Johnson has learned to adapt to his main clientele when it comes to marketing. The recent wave of college students respond differently to marketing strategies than former students. “It’s a whole new ballgame,” Johnson says.
Students are listening less to traditional radio and reading fewer traditional magazines and newspapers. “None of the college kids look at that,” Johnson says. The college newspaper is fair game for advertising, though, since it’s more commonly read by the students on campus. Plus, he’s become a small-business resource for the college newspaper — which gets his name in articles and provides another form of free advertising.
While he puts up posters and flyers on the campus in public buildings, on community bulletin boards and in nearby small businesses, he relies heavily on word of mouth and getting good reviews on social media, such as Yelp and Facebook. He hands out brochures to department administrators, and while he doesn’t market directly to parents, he makes sure to be present over parents’ weekend and other times when they’re typically in town.
The store’s premium location across from the campus opened up another opportunity for low-cost advertising: Students who purchased boxes for moving day are walking around campus and across town advertising Uncle Marty’s. “They’re carrying our billboard with our brand on two sides of the box,” Johnson says. Other students see the store’s logo and head to Uncle Marty’s for a supply. “Since we started [putting our store’s labels] on the boxes, our box sales got so much better — and our shipping services, too. It’s been amazing.”
His next goal is to be included on the university’s certified vendor list. Getting on the list will grant him permission to put out posters in the students’ residential buildings and send mail directly to the students’ campus mailboxes.
Moving-Out Month: An Anomaly in Peak Shipping
Johnson takes spring graduation at Cornell University very seriously. May is move-out season — it’s by far the biggest peak season for his store, and it takes a lot of preparation and organization.
In April, about a month before graduation, Johnson advertises the store’s shipping and storage services via posters and flyers, on its website, and in social media. By May 1, his store is set up for move-out season. He stacks pallets with four different sizes of boxes (he inventories 50 sizes) near the front door of his store and provides carts for students to rent or borrow to help bring their items to the store for packing and shipping.
“The graduates are all scrambling to get their stuff moved and shipped to their next destination. It's complete mayhem, and I love it!” Johnson says.