The Ol' College Try
There are lots of reasons you should be selling into the education market—more than 100,000, actually. That's the total number of schools in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Education's 2013 report, each with promotional needs ranging from branded stationery to pep rally giveaways to school store merchandise.
The sales opportunities are tremendous, but there's one caveat: not all schools are created equal. What works for High Point University may not work for University Point High, and vice versa. You'll need a different approach depending on where you're selling—and for that, we've got you covered. Study up on the education market with this guide to sales in colleges and high schools.
One of the big benefits of the colleges and universities market is the sheer number of smaller markets contained within it. You're not just selling to the school—you're selling to all of its departments, clubs, events, functions and more. Steve Woodburn, MAS, relationship manager, strategic accounts for Norcross, Georgia-based distributor Pinnacle Promotions, explained. "Typically there are multiple groups within the university market I sell into," he said. "There is development, which is the people raising funds for the school, usually through alumni and corporate donations. There are alumni groups that work to keep alumni engaged through events and networking groups. There are student activity groups, sports, graduate programs and more.
"I say all this to underscore how diverse the buyers are in what they are looking for," he added. "They all want useful items that can be branded with the institution's logo and possibly their particular department's logo."
Once you've figured out where you're selling, start thinking about the when. Woodburn mentioned that most college and university fiscal calendars run July 1 to June 30, making spring and early summer the best time for sales. "The majority of their purchases will be from April to July, to spend the balance of their budgets and get products for the schools' August start date," he explained. "They will buy at other times of the year, but the spring/early summer buying period is the most intense and is when you can get the biggest orders."
The market is not without challenges, though, with licensing restrictions topping the list. In most cases, artwork and suppliers must be preapproved and permission granted by the school's licensing board before logos can be printed on a product. "Distributors must be licensed by the Collegiate Licensing Co. (CLC) to work with larger schools," noted Woodburn. "They are basically the middlemen when it comes to approving logos on products, and the schools give them the discretion to do so. There are different licenses based on what you intend to sell to the schools and if you intend to sell into the retail market." This can cause headaches, but it can also be a windfall for distributors. "You might be able to get away without a license, but the small investment is worth the time and effort and will give you better access into all areas of a school," Woodburn said.
According to CollegeBoard.com, in 2013, average tuition and fees totaled $8,893 (in-state) and $22,203 (out-of-state) for public colleges and $30,094 for private colleges. Anyone who's familiar with student loans will tell you the numbers are more in the well-I'm-gonna-have-to-sell-a-kidney-to-pay-for-this range, but the point remains: college is expensive. All that tuition money, of course, means colleges have deep pockets—far deeper than the average high school.
As such, high schools tend to operate on tighter marketing budgets than their higher-education counterparts. "This market is typically very price-conscious," noted Kevin Burden, director of business development for Gill Studios Inc., Lenexa, Kan. "Education buyers in a lot of cases look for items that can effectively share a message to the masses at a low cost, whether it is bumper stickers that show school pride, recognize student achievements or support sports teams, or a functional parking permit that can either stick to a car window or hang from a rearview mirror."
Burden also mentioned decals—particularly dry-erase and chalkboard types—as good options for the high school market, as they're budget-friendly and have a number of uses. "Our newer dry-erase and chalkboard decals have become very popular for students and educators as reminders, messages, calendars or [notes]," he explained. "These removable decals can be placed anywhere and removed at any time with no damage or adhesive residue left behind, so you can always have access to a message board wherever you need it."
Still, there are ways to circumvent budget restrictions with high school buyers, if you're willing to put in the extra work. Burden suggested finding sponsors or offering shared advertising with local businesses, which helps distribute costs and increases the odds of a larger sale. "Even as the economy improves, schools will continue to have funding challenges, so if you can present effective, low-cost ideas and offer up some advertising space to help offset the costs, you will help move yourself to the head of the class," he said.