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By Mark Censits

Princeton University does more than $100 million dollars in business with outside companies each year. But how much of that business is actually transacted with merchants in the town?

In fact, how many Princeton businesses actually know how to go about offering their goods and services to the University?

The Princeton Merchants Association will address questions like those, and also talk about ways for local merchants to do business with the University, at this month’s general meeting, to be held Sept. 23, from 8 to 10 a.m. at the Princeton Public Library.

Kristin Appelget, Princeton University’s Director of Community and Regional Affairs, is able to offer some thoughts on doing business with the University.

“The first thing a business should think about is the question, ‘Who is my potential customer?’” Appelget says. “I think that it’s important to remember that Princeton University is a 24/7 operation. There are students who are on campus for 9 months out of the year, but we operate 12 months a year.”

Appelget says during the school year, there are 14,000 potential customers on the campus — about 8,000 students, and some 6,000 employees. Of the students, almost 100 percent of the undergrads live on campus, and about 70 percent of the 3,000 graduate students live in student housing owned by the University.

“We have a very residential campus with students who spend lots of time in the town and close to the downtown merchants,” she says.

As for University employees, most work year round at the school, and many live in Princeton or in nearby towns.

“When they’re not at work, they’re in the Princeton area,” Appelget says. So businesses should develop strategies to attract these potential customers.”

It’s important for businesses to think about who their potential customers are, and make sure their products or services are the ones that their customer is looking for,” she says.

In addition, there’s also the opportunity for merchants to do business with the University itself. Appelget says one of the most important things a business can do is to register with the school’s purchasing department.

“It’s important for a business to reach out to the purchasing department to see whether the products they offer would be appropriate,” Appelget says.

According to the Princeton University website, the purchasing department is responsible for the campuswide procurement of more than $150 million in annual purchases of equipment, goods, and services.

More information on how to work with the purchasing department, as well as what goods and services it procures, is online at finance.princeton.edu/special-information-for/suppliers-vendors.

Appelget also advises potential vendors to register with the Bidsync program (bidsync.com/princeton-university), which she says is the system the University uses to award many of its bids for products and services. Business owners who register are notified of bids that are coming out, and also become known to the University’s purchasing officers.

Not all of the purchasing done at the University is conducted through the central purchasing system, though, says Appelget.

“There’s quite a bit of purchasing done at the department level. There are lots of the smaller events and conferences, and regular purchasing that gets done for food and drink and supplies is done at that level,” she says.

In those cases, the best way to capture the attention of the buyers is through research, networking and relationship building. As is the case with almost any kind of marketing effort, merchants that want to work with the University have to be ambitious and creative in terms of being aware of what is happening in town, and be proactive in trying to involve themselves.

For example, a business can’t just open its doors and expect customers to come and find them — they have to think about ways they are going to attract customers. They should also expand that level of thought to the different ways they can attract different facets of the University as customers.

One good way to network is to be a member of organizations like the PMA, and participate in the programs they offer, Appelget says, adding that the University has a long history of working with the PMA.

Over time, she says, she and her colleagues have worked to get to know people through the association. Whenever business owners have questions about how to work with the University, she advises, one of the best ways they can connect with the University is through the PMA.

“They are getting to know us and we are getting to know them. A lot of times those relationships can end up with the merchant as an eventual customer,” she says.

Mark Censits is a member of the PMA marketing committee and owner of Coolvines. The Hometown Princeton column is provided monthly by the PMA. On the web: princetonmerchants.org.