Transact Campus: Leading the Way to a Mobile-Centric Future

by | Feb 28, 2024 | Blogs, Campus Dining

college student on phone

A conversation with John Diaz of Transact Campus

Colleges and universities are often early adopters of digital innovations, for good reason. Although their Gen Z students are nostalgic for old-school digital cameras and flip phones, they expect their activities on campus to be digitally efficient and seamless. After all, these students have practically grown up with smart phones, and use them to shop, socialize, and entertain themselves, on their own schedule and their own terms.

Apex partner Transact Campus is helping to make many of those mobile-focused initiatives possible, serving over 12 million students at more than 1,850 colleges and universities. We spoke with Transact’s John Diaz, Vice President of Commerce Solution Sales, about how higher education leaders are creating the mobile-centric experiences students want.

Tell us about yourself and how you came to Transact

I started off working on the client side at Duke University for over 10 years before I went to Sequoia Retail Systems. That company originally created point-of-sale and inventory management systems for college bookstores, back in the days when people carried actual books.

I was brought in to help Sequoia expand into auxiliary services, which was heavily in the dining services side of the business and worked very closely with the campus card offices. I did some mobile products that were just coming out of the gate in the early 2000s, then that expanded into self-service kiosks, point of sale and mobile ordering. Then Sequoia was acquired by Blackboard, one of the largest eLearning companies, and that included their student ID card system.

In 2019 we spun out from Blackboard as Transact Campus, and since then, we’ve made two more acquisitions, and one of those was called Hangry. That addition gave us our client base for mobile ordering and our integration with Apex Smart Food Lockers. That was also a big part of how we helped our clients to go contactless during Covid so that their cashiers didn’t have to ring up every transaction themselves.

What does a mobile-centric campus look like?

With the big shift that’s happened in the past few years, we now have schools that don’t even issue a physical ID card anymore. If you go to the University of Alabama, one of Transact’s original clients for mobile credentials, you don’t get an ID card. It’s literally going to be on your phone or your watch unless you have a special need, or you request a physical ID card. It’s becoming the norm that your mobile wallet is going to be your student ID card. For the first few years, schools would still issue both, and now they’re saying, ‘For our incoming first-year class, we’re just not going to issue physical ID cards anymore.’

The big thing that affects our technology partners is that they’re used to everyone just swiping their card. But now, there is no card, so our partners have had to adapt. And there are places where we can enable that technology, or you may already have something or we’re using a QR code or something different than we would have been using five years ago. It’s all virtual or electronic now.

What kinds of benefits do schools see with a mobile-centric approach?

I think we overuse the word ‘frictionless,’ but that’s where you see a lot of the benefits. Before, there was always friction in the process somewhere. Covid helped accelerate that frictionless experience because these schools didn’t want students coming into the card office and didn’t want lines on their campus.

One of the biggest transformations was in orientation, and not having all the first-year students and their parents come and stand in line to get their ID card, and another line to get their textbooks, and another to get their parking pass, and all the rest of it. Now it’s all done through the school’s mobile app or website.

Another benefit has been to reduce the labor for university employees, especially in those foodservice and retail locations. Many of these places are still understaffed, so converting some payments and purchases to mobile takes people out of the lines at the register. It also gives employees more time to really focus on customer service when guests still want it.

One of the things that helps simplify a mobile-centric approach is that Transact is standards-based and uses true NFC technology so that the operator doesn’t need to have a proprietary piece of equipment. If we have a new partner come in that’s NFC-enabled and follow standards, or they’re Apple certified, it helps facilitate and enable that additional transaction option for students. As more hardware manufacturers or terminal manufacturers have adopted these standards, we can expand our reach with the student ID card more quickly and broadly than we used to.

How do you see Transact’s integration with Apex expanding those mobile-centric benefits?

A few years back, with the need for contactless transactions, we started seeing a huge shift in clients moving away from cashier-attended sales. Previously, they might have had five or six point-of-sale terminals sitting on a counter and a cashier standing at each one to take the order and sometimes fulfill the order, too.

We’ve seen that change dramatically, even with some of our national brand partners, including brands that were known for being very particular about having a person there to handle those transactions. Whether it was driven by labor shortages and wage increases, or simply a desire for efficiency, they’ve reduced that to maybe one cashier and everything else will either be with mobile ordering, or it’ll be a self-service kiosk taking the order.

The fulfillment has also shifted, although some places are still handing the order to the customer with an expediter. But there are other places where there aren’t enough expediters to do that, and you need technology like Apex to help keep those orders straight and make sure that the food quality is maintained.

Why do you think so many mobile-centric schools are offering smart food lockers for order pickup?

The Apex food lockers eliminate a lot of headaches for operators who are trying to handle a high volume of mobile orders. These places often struggle with organizing them, they lose orders, they get stolen, and so the operator may use an employee like an expediter or cashier to try to manage the chaos.

One example was when I recently went to a restaurant, and they had put all the to-go orders in some cubbies. I started looking for my order, pulling out order after order from every cubby, but couldn’t find mine. Then suddenly an employee rushed up to me and told me to stop. He didn’t want me to just grab it out of the cube myself, because I’m sure they had people walk in just steal orders or take the wrong one. So, what did the restaurant really accomplish if they had to have someone physically come over and help me?

Without food lockers, it’s easy for someone to come up and just grab a bag. And the operator doesn’t know if that’s the right person who picked up or not. There could also be food safety concerns, depending on how it’s packaged.

With Apex lockers, the operator doesn’t need an employee to keep an eye on order pickup. The employee just loads the order into the locker, and that’s where it stays until the right customer comes to pick up. There are no questions, and for the customer, no need to look through a bunch of bags to find their order.

How is campus dining different from the retail parts of Transact’s business?

I think the key with a dining operation is the importance of freshness and the quality of food. It’s different than if I’m just picking up a package or something that’s not perishable.

In a retail operation, a student could be picking up a package during those peak time periods, maybe during a class change, but it’s a different scenario. They can pick up their order at any time during the day and that package might sit in the locker for who knows how long. There may not be a sense of urgency.

In a foodservice environment, the order usually doesn’t sit there very long. The way the cycles go in higher ed, you get these very distinct high-throughput, high-transaction volumes, and you’ve got to be able to adjust to that. That massive throughput is why food lockers make perfect sense. There’s a fast turnover—an order might just sit in that locker for a couple of minutes until it’s picked up, then the operator has that locker available for the next order that comes in.

It’s important that foodservice technology works well. It has to be flawless during those peak time periods. Students only have so much time before their next class, so they won’t use something that doesn’t work well.

Where do you envision universities expanding smart lockers on campuses?

I think I’ve seen schools potentially doing more ghost kitchen type things. Again, because staffing is so difficult to come by these days and we’ve absolutely seen that shift already from the cashier-attended situation, where they take the order and fulfill the order.

I think the lockers could certainly move beyond food, absolutely. There’s plenty of places that could be a great fit with that solution.

For one, we’re seeing micro-markets becoming an important thing. Transact Campus does things with Amazon, including their Just Walk Out solution. I could certainly see someone say, “I want to order my items and just go pick them up. And I’d like to have them already packaged for me and ready to go.” Smart lockers would let them do that without any help needed, without any contact.

I also think we could see smart lockers in the rec center. What if I want to check out a basketball or some other equipment? Why couldn’t I do that with mobile technology? There are so many places on campus that could be improved with a more seamless experience.

Last question: What’s your favorite thing about Apex food lockers?

I just think it is such a simple concept, such a great solution for what students need. And again, having used it myself in other places, it’s just nice to know that this is my locker, and that’s where I pick up. I know no one else has touched this. It just eliminates that confusion and uncertainty. And I like that.


To discover how your dining program can take a more mobile-centric approach, explore our smart food locker solutions for campus dining.