I feel like higher education is very different from when I attended university in the early 2000s. iPads and eReaders weren’t a thing yet so I had to lug a backpack full of textbooks that weighed about 50lbs on transit and all around campus. I did have a laptop but it was a Toshiba that added another 10lbs so I didn’t usually bring it. Smartphones and social media did not exist yet, nobody knew what an app was. And working at my summer jobs did not afford me enough disposable income to look anything close to stylish during the year so I settled for ‘warm & dry’.
As a business back then, unless you published insanely priced textbooks or were handing out debt I don’t think it was a profitable idea to go after the college and university market who had precious little spending money. However I feel that things have changed, several companies have done well with that strategy, and now many start-ups are beginning to see the potential. Let’s talk about a couple of those.
Shein: Fashion at rock bottom prices and still somehow managing to make use of promo codes
If you haven’t been a young woman in recent years you may not have heard of Shein, but they are one of the biggest online clothing retailers despite having clothes that are not very high quality, to put it charitably. Many of their young customers first hear about the company through an exclusive promo code from an influencer that they follow on Instagram. It’s a big part of their marketing strategy, and it has paid off in dividends.
By offering clothing at astonishingly low prices, they went after a portion of the market that was almost completely ignored by most stores that you will find at the mall. Their margins per item are low, but they are counting on volume to make up for that. So far, they have been correct and the gamble has paid off. Part of the way that they have been able to do this is that they don’t have any physical store locations. They were one of the first companies to offer a completely online retail experience with the clothes shipped pretty much directly from the manufacturer in Asia to you. Recently they have developed an app as well, so you can even shop from your phone.
I think initially a lot of clothing companies were reluctant to go online because they thought that people wouldn’t be willing to buy clothes without trying them on first. As it turns out they will, if the price is low enough. Shein developed a clever way to handle returns as well. You can pay a small ‘guaranteed return fee’ on your order. If you don’t end up liking some things, you can just ship them back for a couple of dollars and if you don’t end up using it, then Shein just pockets that money. If you don’t pay for the ‘guaranteed return’ then the return shipping price is typically more than the items initially cost so I imagine most don’t bother. I think this is an ingenious way to handle online retail for something that could potentially have a high rate of returns, such as clothing or footwear.
With Shein’s prices and promotions, even if you are going to college entirely on scholarships and part time job wages you will still be able to get at least a couple of new items every semester. They might only last for the semester, but if you enjoy fashion and having a fresh wardrobe is important to you then it’s at least an option.
Duffl, the delivery service by students for students
As of the writing of this article Duffl is currently only available for students at UCLA and USC but they are looking for ‘Ambassadors’ at other campuses to run their own Duffl start-ups. I think it’s a really smart idea: you can order snacks, groceries, toiletries, & other essentials through the app for a flat fee of $1.95. A short while later (the average delivery time is an astounding 9 minutes) a fellow student who works for the company called a ‘Racer’ shows up on an electric scooter with your items. In a way I’m glad this didn’t exist when I was a student, because I definitely would have gotten all the snacks delivered to the student union building when I was in there studying for hours at a time. They had a small convenience store in the building, but their prices were much too high for me. If I could have paid just $2 for delivery and grocery store prices? I would have easily put on 10 pounds.
And it’s not just food items they deliver. Need a roll of quarters to do laundry? They’ve got that. Need a $20 bill? They can bring one to you for $21.99. Got a cold or forgot to buy deodorant? They have you covered. Having a party? They’ll bring you red Solo cups if you run out. They even have vaping devices and cigarettes if you need a fix. Their prices are in line with what you would pay at a grocery store, cheaper than most other on-campus options, and you absolutely can not beat that convenience factor. This is a business that definitely could not have existed in the pre-smartphone era and I think it’s a very smart way to leverage that technology in a way that specifically targets college students.
They have a program where you can earn a $5 credit for referring a friend, and I would imagine that word of mouth and social media have been powerful marketing tools for this company. I think there could be a great opportunity here for anyone who is currently a student to get some experience running a business, and I’m very interested to see how this company grows.