The College Store - March/April 2012

For What It's Worth: Mission Possible?

Jon Kates 0000-00-00 00:00:00

How college stores can distinguish themselves from other retailers if textbooks no longer connect them to their schools’ academic mission. As if operating a college store wasn’t difficult enough these days, Apple unveiled a multifaceted, highly imaginative e-book initiative smack dab in the middle of second-semester book rush. The announcement’s timing was calculated to grab the attention of students, publishers, administrators, and educators. And although recent research indicates that only about 3% of students not required to use e-textbooks in their classes do so, the media coverage and aggressive marketing of Apple and companies such as Kno and Inkster have raised the profile of e-textbooks and the advantages of using them. Others are getting into the act, too. More IT departments are positioning themselves as a solution to the high price of textbooks, convinced that conventional distribution channels, including college stores, are antiquated and unsupportable. Their message resonates with some senior administrators. E-textbook initiatives endorsed and supported by IT departments are taking place at a number of campuses this semester, including here at the University of Virginia. Our e-book pilot is small by design, with just seven faculty members and about 400 students, all from our engineering school, involved. The project originated in Indiana University’s IT department, in coordination with Courseload, McGraw-Hill, and select academic departments. It seeks to lower publishers’ textbook prices in part by eliminating competition from used books and rentals. Under this model, faculty members decide whether they wish to participate. Publishers discount their e-textbooks 65%-70% off the new-book price. In return, all students taking these classes are required to purchase the e-books and are billed for them as part of their tuition. Bookstores are not part of the process. If a student wants a printed textbook, they can purchase it through Courseload. There are desirable features to this particular e-book program: Students get to keep the books for five years, and there is a social media component and connectivity to all higher-ed platforms, such as Blackboard. It’s too soon to know how students will judge this pilot. At Indiana, the program has been in place for two years and response has been very positive. With higher education under intense scrutiny resulting from substantial tuition hikes and a weak economy, e-book initiatives demonstrate to parents and legislators that colleges and universities are seriously trying to reduce the overall cost of education. E-textbooks are also seen as cutting-edge technology with capabilities that extend far beyond conventional books. Where does all this leave the college store? I’m no futurist, but I must admit the outlook doesn’t look bright. Whatever you feel about the vision expressed in the College Store of 2015 initiative, the sad fact is most college stores depend on textbook sales—not necessarily for the revenue, but for the foot traffic that they generate. When students don’t need to shop at our stores for their books, they certainly don’t need us for school supplies and other items. We’ve already seen significant changes in the buying patterns of students who now have so many more options. Amazon and Chegg have put a noticeable dent in our sales. Being a skilled retailer doesn’t guarantee you’ll succeed in this brave new world. Even if we’re able to sustain the revenue stream we’ve created for our respective schools, larger questions remain. How can a college store still support the academic mission of the institution it serves without being a purveyor of its course materials? Without textbooks, how do we distinguish ourselves from other retailers and how do we justify our presence on campus? Here are a few ideas we at UVA Bookstore already have in place or are in the process of implementing. Make your store a center for the arts on your campus. Work with faculty teaching photography, painting, drawing, and sculpture. Set aside space in your store as a gallery for their students’ work. Feature these pieces on your web site, devoting a section to digital photography and video projects. Offer students the opportunity to sell their works on your site and in your store. Share your marketing skills and the skills of your staff to help these student artists become entrepreneurs. Put together shows of student works and invite the entire university community, not to mention the parents of the budding artists. Encourage faculty in your school’s creative writing program to utilize your store for their students’ poetry and fiction readings. If space is an issue, be sure to consolidate any leftover textbooks you’re still selling after rush; you’ll be amazed at the amount of room that appears. In association with your campus or your local print shop, underwrite and arrange for publication of a book of poetry and prose by students who read their work in your store. With advances in custom publishing, you can produce a professional-looking and reasonably inexpensive book. Affiliate with student groups and clubs. Make your store a learning center for student groups that can derive tangible benefits from the experience. Because of the practical retail perspective we bring, we can help young entrepreneurs with everything from producing and interpreting financial statements to marketing and business planning. If your college has a student-run fashion club, as we do, encourage the members to take part in buying meetings with vendors and ask them to submit imprint ideas. This can be both instructive and profitable to all parties involved. To sweeten the pot, donate a portion of the sale of merchandise with these imprints to the club. Who knows? This merchandise might be part of their next fashion show. Engage the talents of student groups interested in graphics and web design. Offer them the opportunity to critique and improve upon your advertising, catalogs, and web site. Be a source of technology products and services. Our computer departments can be the most visible means of supporting the academic mission because they carry—or should be carrying—the very devices on which e-books are read. Consider operating an authorized service center for the equipment you sell or at least establish and coordinate a convenient, reliable depot service where you can arrange for the repair of customers’ devices. Be sure your computer department employees can communicate effectively with a diverse customer base and are fully versed in the merchandise they sell. Work with your school’s IT department so your store can also help new students acclimate themselves to their computing environment, including network access once they arrive on campus. Look for ways to add value and convenience for your customers, whether this means having custom software or apps preloaded on computers and tablets or the delivery of this hardware to dorm rooms and apartments. Be sure to apply all the lessons you’ve learned as a non-IT retailer. Don’t shy away from consumer electronics and peripherals just because you have a big-box store in your area. Convenience and the knowledge that your store is backed by the college it serves is important to your customer. A payroll-deduction program for faculty and staff will enable you to diversify your product mix and drive sales further. UVA’s HR department lets new staff know that our program is a benefit of their employment here. Sponsor and coordinate computer resource fairs that include vendor reps and new products that both consumers and departments will find attractive. When all is said and done, the better you are at interacting effectively with academic departments and creating coalitions with students and faculty, the more likely you will flourish. An important role for NACS. Finally, take full advantage of the creativity and experience of your peers. Our industry is remarkable, in part, because it’s so collaborative. Join me in encouraging NACS to set up new online discussion lists devoted to important areas of concern to all of us: best industry practices; new product and imprint ideas, and marketing; and ways of supporting the academic mission. If actively promoted, these lists—accessible to any size store—could make all of us better retailers and help us overcome the hurdles facing our industry. Those of us fortunate enough to work at a college store know how special a place it is. I, for one, do not want to see it go away.

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