Welcome to Richmond Virginia’s 900 block of West Grace Street, circa 2000.
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) lies just one block south on West Franklin, and the busy thoroughfare that is Broad Street is around the corner to the north. But east to west on West Grace Street? You’ll find the dusty street populated with vacant storefronts, shabby apartment buildings, and asphalt parking lots. Catering more to the city’s “grunge” scene than the nearby university, the stretch features a rundown shopping center with little to offer the rapidly growing student base situated just a block away.
Fast-forward 15 years. Today, West Grace Street is completely reimagined. It boasts a handful of new tenants, including local food favorites and a local print shop. The VCU Police Department is headquartered at 938 West Grace. The former Lee Theatre reopened under VCUarts as the West Grace Street Theatre. Shiny new student apartment buildings and residence halls sit neatly atop reinvented retail spaces. Construction crews populate the street daily—a continuous sign of new growth and development.
“West Grace Street is becoming more of a destination and less of a thoroughfare,” said Jay Phinizy, retail manager with VCU Business Services.
Much of West Grace Street’s urban renewal is rooted in VCU’s strategic plan, referred to by the university as the Quest for Distinction. The Quest, as well as the 2020 Master Site Plan that falls in line with it, places “an abiding focus on student success at all levels … and engagement and empowerment in the communities we serve.” This focus has propelled the revitalization of West Grace Street, and it’s what ultimately prompted VCU Business Services to open the university’s first stand-alone on-campus technology retailer, RamTech.
RamTech Comes to Campus
Located at 930 West Grace St., RamTech opened its doors to the VCU community on April 7, 2014. Entering the store’s bright, open space, you’d never guess the building used to be a dingy, old sandwich shop. RamTech boasts floor-to-ceiling glass walls, sleek display tables, and a modern exterior. Top-of-the-line computers, tablets, and tech accessories line the sales floor—all sold at academic prices.
Upbeat, contemporary music plays from a wireless Bluetooth speaker. Student sales associates greet customers and guide them throughout the shop. The space is everything West Grace Street wasn’t a decade ago, making it easy to see how RamTech is an anchor in the corridor’s revival.
Aiding in the rejuvenation of West Grace Street exemplifies VCU’s commitment to the Richmond community, as noted in the Quest. But choosing to turn the space into a game-changing technology resource speaks to VCU’s commitment to student success and faculty/staff excellence.
“In our auxiliary services portfolio, we identified both a void and an opportunity to launch a technology store on campus that would meet the custom tech needs of our students,” said Diane Reynolds, assistant vice president of business services at Virginia Commonwealth University.
With technology playing a central role in today’s classroom, VCU has made it a priority to give students and employees the resources they need to be successful. This priority is at RamTech’s very core, recognizable in its daily operations and offerings starting with the most obvious: location.
Like most large universities, VCU operates as a city within a city. With a population of more than 31,000 students, most of VCU’s amenities are within walking distance, such as the gym, dining facilities, library, and common area. However, prior to RamTech opening in 2014, VCU students had to drive nearly 30 minutes west to Short Pump Towne Center if they wanted to visit big box technology stores like Best Buy or even Apple.
“Being an urban campus, students often find themselves landlocked without cars,” said Phinizy. “Opening a technology store on campus provided a new level of convenience for students, as well as faculty and staff.”
Next-level Shopping Experience
Bringing RamTech to VCU would also help the university further support its Student Computer Initiative (SCI), which launched in 2007. The initiative helps “ensure students are equipped with the necessary technology to effectively participate in classes and class work.” This means that not only does each VCU student need to own a personal computer, but each computer must meet a list of minimum requirements for the student’s given major.
In conjunction with the SCI, RamTech is fundamentally changing how students select technology for their academics. Before they even graduate from high school, future Rams receive a brochure from RamTech that discusses how the store can help with their tech needs. From here, RamTech takes it one step further: sales associates are kept up-to-date on the minimum computer requirements for each academic department, meaning they work one-on-one with students and their families to select the system that best fits their academics.
“We like to think of ourselves as technology ambassadors,” said Rudy Lopez, assistant manager at RamTech. “We provide a stress-free shopping experience for new students, not to mention faculty and staff.”
Stress-free because of RamTech’s convenient location and expert sales associates, yes, but also because of the shop’s affordable academic pricing and payroll deduction opportunities. For a minimum of 10 percent down, faculty and staff immediately get the tech they need, with easy, interest-free payments made directly from their paycheck. And for those with old technology they’re looking to replace, RamTech’s Trade In & Trade Up program allows customers to trade their old tech in for top dollar at RamTech.
Individuals aren’t the only ones changing the way they purchase technology. University departments are now working with RamTech to get the tech they need for their professors and students. Such is the case with Dan Grenier, director of technology support in VCU’s School of Arts—the No. 1 public arts school in the country. In 2014, Grenier worked with RamTech to purchase more than 100 computers, external hard drives, Wacom tablets, and adapters. RamTech’s convenient location and academic pricing made it worthwhile for the department to purchase technology through the tech store as opposed to getting it from another source.
“The team [at RamTech] worked directly with me to create quotes and order equipment for planned projects,” Grenier said. “I am constantly picking up adapters of all varieties for our Macs, and they have what I need in stock and ready for unplanned purchases. RamTech is convenient, and everything we order works great for our department.”
Departmental purchasing is a feature RamTech is still cultivating. The tech store is collaborating with university technology services to create custom ecommerce websites for each department, making it even easier to see what products RamTech has to offer a specific discipline.
“We try to give departments the customized, person-to-person contact they need when making a big technology decision,” said McKensie Williams, sales and marketing manager at RamTech. “Instead of blindly searching through catalogs, they can come have a conversation with us about their needs.”
RamTech as a Support Resource
A customer’s needs don’t stop after the product is purchased from RamTech, and that’s where fixIT, VCU’s in-house computer repair resource, comes in. With a location directly inside RamTech, fixIT’s convenient drop off/pick up service makes last-minute repairs easy. The store also offers exclusive and affordable “RamSupport” protection plans for tablets, laptops, and desktops. RamSupport includes an on-campus and nation-wide support network, covers accidental damages and defects for up to four years, and provides free training whenever the customer needs it. fixIT will even transfer the customer’s data to a complimentary loaner while their system is being repaired.
“It’s a comfort for students and their families to know that not only will RamTech help them find the technology they need for their specific studies, but that in the event of an accident or tech malfunction, fixIT is right on campus and ready to help,” said Stephen Barr, director of campus services in VCU Business Services.
While the products at RamTech and its overall convenience are certainly changing the way universities obtain technology, perhaps the most innovative part of the tech store is its educational opportunities for students, faculty, and staff. “Appy Hour” is RamTech’s monthly hour-long training session that instructs attendees how to use the latest programs and applications to their advantage.
“People can come into RamTech, learn how to use certain applications and systems, then literally purchase that technology right then and there,” Lopez said. “We’re a multifaceted storefront.”
Appy Hour topics from RamTech’s first year of operation include “You and Your Dell,” “How to use iMovie,” “iOS Tips and Tricks,” and “Understanding the Cloud,” among others. Feedback from the Appy Hours have been overwhelmingly positive, with most people frequenting multiple Appy Hours.
After only a year in business, RamTech’s success is palpable. Sales have been strong, customer satisfaction is high, and in February the store was named winner of the 2015 Excellence in Technology Retail Award (ExTRA) by the Campus Computer Resellers Alliance, a division of the National Association of College Stores. But as with any new business, RamTech is still growing. The store is continuing to learn how its cutting-edge products and services best fit with the university. Processes are tweaked every day to help ensure the VCU community is getting the very best in technology support. And much like RamTech, Richmond’s West Grace Street corridor near Virginia Commonwealth University is still evolving. Independent businesses and university initiatives alike are contributing to the area’s rejuvenation, and it’s a process that requires both time and commitment.
“What’s West Grace Street going to look like when all the construction is finished?” asked Ric Withers, owner of Wythken Printing, a local print shop situated directly across the street from RamTech on West Grace. “I think it’s going to look like a cohesive part of VCU with a strong retail presence. It will be cleaner, more organized, and more university-focused. And that’s the key for making this area successful.”
RamTech isn’t just helping to boost the success of the 800-900 West Grace Street corridor. By functioning as a part of VCU, RamTech is giving students the technology support they need to be successful— a key component in today’s forward-thinking, ever-changing world.