Clean-Up and Special on Aisle 9

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An article with the attention-grabbing headline of “Home Depot, The Place to Go for Toilet Paper?” in Friday’s issue of The Wall Street Journal made some interesting points about how to drive consumer traffic. Yes, I do not like to use that term either or to apply it to higher education, but that seems to be where we are, one step away or some would say we have already stepped in it, from the box stores mentioned in the piece, Home Depot, Best Buy, and Staples.

These retail giants are finding they need to place products in their stores that are normally not associated with what they have to offer in order to bring in the customers.  So it’s brooms for Staples, laundry detergent for Best Buy, and liquid soap for Home Depot, though to me the latter offering soap is not too far of a stretch; after all, you do get dirty if you actually do the stuff they portray in the home, garden, and renovation shows on television.

How does all of this apply to education?  I am sure you already have begun to form correlations, ideas, and manifestations of disgust, sarcasm, or maybe even joy (not to be confused with the capitalized brand of liquid soap).

But think about it.  Online is all the rage, students are not coming to inhabit the magnificent and spacious buildings on campus, many of which still have a hefty mortgage on them, and the proverbial college bookstore, even though it has all sorts of gear and trinkets college students on their parents’ payroll can obtain on impulse credit card buys, it is just not the draw it once was.

So how are institutions of higher learning, which see themselves as businesses, going to make up the loss of foot traffic or maybe even limited bread crumbs as students take shortcut trails in their online education?

For those colleges willing to take a chance of foot traffic, I propose the infusion of boutiques to sell items that have nothing to do with education.  For online course providers, insert advertising that follows students with the algorithmaniacal (make that a word) precision of Facebook and buying habit sleuthing expertise of amazon.com.

So next to your student housing open up a liquor store.  In proximity of the library building no store.  Outside the most-frequented lecture hall offer vending machines with sleeping pills or Red Bull to accommodate a clientele on diverse ends of the spectrum.

When it comes to online, well, institutions of higher learning, you can sell anything. Joey skips reading the course guide. There must be an algorithm to determine he prefers a certain kind of tobacco.  Someone reading all of the study questions.  Conscientious people like to be prepared.  Condoms are a big markup item with huge sales potential.

You get the picture.  If I were a mad business scientist with nefarious profit motives, or to give that kind of person in charge the benefit of the doubt, just a person of average morals needing to keep the institution afloat financially, that is the kind of new and improved educational business I would venture into.

Of course the problem is that I am an English professor and have creative ideas and I view this kind of picture I have painted as a nightmare, hoping it has been only that, from observing and sensing the direction in which education is heading, education stumbling along with a lower-case “e” while BUSINESS is big, baby, all caps for that word.

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