The Illini Union Bookstore offers more than just textbooks and T-shirts, they also have an assortment of specialty candies featuring University of Illinois logos.
By Crystal Lindell
A four-year degree from the University of Illinois costs $13,658 annually, but only if you live in Illinois. Out-of-state students can expect to pay $27,800 each year.
But, for $14.99, you can still have a pretty sweet experience on campus. That’s the price of 147 blue and orange U of I gumballs. Still too expensive? Well, how about a 22-cent chocolate featuring a U of I emblem on a blue wrapper. That’s only a quarter after tax.
College bookstores may make most of their money selling their most obvious product - text books - but as a retailing hub on most campuses, they also offer a wide range of other merchandise, most of which feature the school colors.
“These days, it seems students are busier than ever as they have to balance a demanding schedule, consisting of school, work, clubs and more,” explains Charles Schmidt, spokesman for the National Association of College Stores. “[The] ultimate goal is to be a hub for students.”
The bookstore at U of I is no different.
It opened at it’s current three-story, 48,000-sq.-ft. location at 809 S. Wright St., Champaign, Ill., in 1994, but the campus has run a bookstore since the 1930s, says Bradley Bridges, bookstore director.
It serves a campus that is home to 43,862 total students, or 31,540 undergraduate and 12,322 graduate and professional students; it also holds a special place in the hearts of the more than 425,000 living alumni.
Nearly every one of those people is more than willing to pay for tokens and treasures that bring to mind their college days, be they present or past.
The shelves on the main floor of the Illini Union Bookstore are littered with blue and orange, well, everything. There’s school T-Shirts, foam fingers, baseball caps, coffee mugs, umbrellas, and, of course, a full display of University of Illinois candies.
For those who can’t make it to the store in person, there are plenty of products to scan through in the catalogue or online at www.uofibookstore.illinois.edu, such as the U of I golf clubs, U of I rocking chairs, U of I cocoa mix, U of I flamingos, and even more candies, although they only ship chocolate when the weather is cool enough.
“We carry candy for both the alumni and in-store sales,” Bridges says.
In the store, the candy display, which is right in front of the register at the main entrance, is a like a sweet sea of blue and orange.
There’s Illinois Candy Cupcakes for $14.99, candy bars wrapped in a picture of the Alma Mater statue for $1.99 and gift boxes that can cost as much as $21.99. That’s, of course, in addition to the blue and orange gumballs, and the 22-cent chocolates.
“The individual servings, they don’t really tear off the shelves, but around Christmas time for stocking stuffers, those do well,” Bridges says.
The biggest seller, though, is the $1.99 University of Illinois chocolate bars. They’re wrapped in either a bright orange or a navy blue wrapper and come in a variety of flavors, including: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, caramel and toffee.
“Every time I’ve bought one it’s been for somebody else,” Bridges says. “I’ve never had one myself.”
In fact, Todd Moeglich, bookstore clerk, says most of the sweet treats end up as gifts, at about a 3 to 1 ratio.
Bridges says the store makes a good margin on the candy and snack products.
Most of the ideas for the specialty confections come from the Association of College Stores conference, where companies work with the store to create licensed products. A lot of their treats are licensed through Astor Chocolate, but the school also recently started working with Russell Stover to offer assorted candies featuring the University of Illinois colors.
Although the bookstore is the only bookstore technically associated with the school, Bridges says they don’t get any special deals on licensing the logos, which are controlled by the Collegiate Licensing Co. However, shoppers can take comfort in the fact that all of the net revenue from the store goes to support university student programs and activities.
In addition to the candies featuring the school logo, the store also sells a variety of snacks and confections. Yogi Chips were the latest product to hit the shelves, Bridges says, and they have been a big seller.
They also have the traditional candy bars, such as Butterfinger, Milky Way and Reese’s, as well as a Jelly Belly display, a Tic Tac Display and a full slate of gums. The store also sells snacks, such as HempPower bars, Milano cookies and Sunbird snacks, which include chocolate-covered pretzels.
“When it’s got emblematic wrappers on it [though], logoed with the University of Illinois, it’s a much faster seller for us than it would be otherwise,” Bridges says.
The bookstore also has an auxiliary store called the Spirit Shop in the student union, Moeglich says.
“That’s usually people coming by and looking for chocolate to eat,” he says. “We go through quite a bit there.”
Aside from all the logoed products, probably the most obvious way a campus bookstore differs from a regular retailer is that it business aligns so exactly with the school year.
“[We’re busy] from [early August] through the first week in September, the second week in September, as far as that chunk of big business in text books, and then every weekend [that] we have a home football game, and then Christmas season is really big, and then book rush in January and then we’re dead until graduation,” Bridges says.
Even with the ability to count on students walking to into the store to grab the books they need each semester, the bookstore cannot rest on its laurels to garner business.
One of the most obvious twists in their business model, which relies on about 60 to 65% of sales from textbooks, is the eBook. An eBook allows students to buy their textbooks in electronic form using an electronic device reader such as a Kindle, which usually costs less money than a book with a binder.
“We’re embracing that as a new technology that we have to adapt to,” Bridges says. “We’re the supplier, of course, of content, whether it’s free or not for the students… So we have to adapt to it, and we are.”
He knows that the bookstore’s bottom floors, where stacks and stacks of books line the aisles, is going to change though.
“[Books] will evolve with all sorts of technological enhancements that we can’t even imagine at this point, Bridges says. “There are features that will definitely keep them around.”
And, as evidenced, by the stores vast array of other products, the store is more than just a place for students to get their next math book.
“We’re the official retailer for university and support its marketing efforts, whatever they are,” Bridges says. “And if us selling a T-shirt or candy with a logo on it gets the word out, then yes, we do support the mission of the university.”
As long as the store continues to embrace technology and offer a slew of orange and blue merchandise, particularly edible sweets and snacks, there’s no doubt it will continue to get an A+ from shoppers.
At a Glance
University of Illinois
Illini Union Bookstore
Address: 809 S. Wright Street
Opened at current location: 1994
In operation since: 1930s
Best selling candy product: $1.99 chocolate bars wrapped in either orange or blue paper with ILLINOIS written across the front and a university logo on the side.
Size of its three-store location: 48,000 sq. ft.
Number of students on campus: 43,862
Individually wrapped candies with the University of Illinois emblem on them sell for just 22 cents each and are a big hit during the Christmas season as shoppers hunt them down for stocking stuffers. All photos by Crystal Lindell
The candy display at the Illini Union Bookstore is a sweet sea of blue and orange confections and features gum balls, chocolates and a candy cupcake among its offerings.
From top left, clockwise: The Illini Union Books store sells traditional impulse candies by the front register; candy bars featuring blue and orange wrappers are the store’s top selling candy; U of I gumballs sell for $14.99; The Illinois Union Bookstore sits at 809 S. Wright St., Champaign, Ill.; rows of text books line the bottom floor of the store; and Todd Moeglich, store clerk, and Bradley Bridges, store director, show school spirit in front of a display of U of I pennants.