By Alyssa Sanford
Meal plans are expensive. It’s a universal truth for college students across the country, but the fact doesn’t quite resonate with students as long as they can use those points as currency instead of taking cash out of their wallets. All it takes to shatter that illusion is one outrageous price.
For junior business major Nicole Alexandre, that moment came last semester when she visited the College’s Convenience Store to buy snacks before an upcoming visit from her cousin. After browsing the selection for a while, she chose a Nutri-Grain cereal bar, among other items.
A single bar cost nearly $3 in points. At Walmart, a box of eight Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain bars costs $2.68, which equates to roughly 33 cents per bar. That makes the C-Store’s price an approximate 900 percent markup from a chain store’s price.
“That’s ridiculous,” Alexandre said. “It’s actually ridiculous that bar cost me three dollars. I could go to Stop and Shop and buy six of them for the exact same price.”
There’s a clear discrepancy between prices at the C-Store and at local shopping centers, but the convenience of swiping an ID card to buy snacks and groceries blinds students to that fact.
Not surprisingly, the College profits from the points spent at locations around campus.
According to a 2012 document outlining the regulations for dining services at the College, “all funds for dining service contracts, debit cards and Get-It cards are collected and held by the College.”
Furthermore, the document states that “the C-Store serves as an on-campus alternative to off-campus convenience venues and is priced competitively with the local market.”
According to Patrice Mendes, Sodexo’s general manager at the College, the local market means “other convenience stores and mom-and-pop small grocery stores, as they are more closely aligned with (our) volume and business models.”
While Sodexo’s Marketing Department used to determine pricing in recent years, it now comes from upper-level management, according to Joanna Brunell, a Sodexo area marketing coordinator at the College.
“Pricing is covered in our contract with TCNJ,” Mendes said. “The pricing increases (because) established items are increased by the contracted amount annually. New items are priced in conjunction with the campus contract director based on cost and other factors such as pricing in like venues.”
In early October, students could purchase fresh produce at the C-Store, eliminating the need for venturing off campus. However, the prices, while reasonable, were not “priced competitively.”
While apples and bananas cost 89 cents apiece at the C-Store, ShopRite sells McIntosh apples for $1.29 per pound, and bananas at 59 cents per pound or 30 cents apiece, as of a circular from the week of Oct. 12.
Avocados at ShopRite cost 77 cents apiece, but they were offered at $3.29 each at the C-Store.
While students likely won’t buy potatoes in bulk, Russet potatoes are sold at approximately 60 cents per pound at ShopRite, while the C-Store charged 85 cents apiece.
The prices are fair, but the marked-up prices are difficult to ignore. Avocados were marked up almost 430 percent, and bananas received a nearly 300 percent markup.
According to Mendes, these markups are based on sales, or “lack thereof.”
“The markups on all the items vary greatly, and there is not one standard markup percentage or increase amount. Instead, we have an overall percentage we cannot exceed,” Mendes said.
Because some items at the C-Store are in high supply but low demand, the pricing reflects a need to sell those items to fewer customers and still manage to make a profit. Fresh produce can’t be offered at the same prices as a chain grocery store because it won’t sell, especially when students can grab apples, bananas and oranges at Eickhoff at no additional cost.
Furthermore, local markets are able to sell food items at lower prices than the C-Store because their clientele is able to bargain-shop at a wide variety of stores.
But some items are priced as low as possible to keep sales up, according to Mendes.
Items like dry cereal and certain ice cream brands kept their prices constant this year, “despite cost increases from our distributor, due to the fact that the retail price was already perceived as being prohibitive to sales,” Mendes said.
Thus, the C-Store’s clientele, made up of residential college students who are often without a means of transportation to local stores, have to pay a little more for the convenience of food shopping without having to leave campus.
In spite of the convenience, the price still matters to Alexandre.
“The price definitely matters for me… I don’t have any other options because I don’t have a car on campus,” Alexandre said.
At the University of Southern Indiana, which also uses Sodexo’s dining services, students who pay for their food in points don’t pay sales tax, according to the university’s newspaper, The Shield.
According to Mendes, there is no difference between paying in points and in cash.
“The price is the same whether a student/customer pays with cash, credit/debit or points. The C-Store services the students, faculty, staff and even our own employees,” Mendes said.
When asked if she would think twice about using cash to pay for food at the C-Store, Alexandre was resolute.
“Definitely. I remember that I went to the C-Store one time and didn’t have my ID on me,” Alexandre said. “I don’t think about it that much when I just use my ID card because I’ve prepaid the expense, but I don’t like paying in cash.”
Sodexo management tries to keep pricing under control, but as Sodexo is a business, the profits must come first.
As Alexandre said, however, “It’s still important to worry about the price.”