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Campus commerce: Bricks vs. clicks

How college retailers are keeping up with the online competition
University Business, September 2018
  • SPOOKY SAVINGS—The Colgate Bookstore’s June 2018 Customer Appreciation Day, held on Friday the 13th (known as Colgate Day), featured a storewide 13 percent off sale. It’s just one way the store helps honor university traditions.
  • SAN DIEGO STATE UNIVERSITY STORE—An “aztecnology”-branded area (the school mascot is the Aztec) is offered to the many students who need a computer or other device while on campus.
  • COLUMBUS STATE COMMUNITY COLLEGE BOOKSTORE—Prospective students visiting campus receive a coupon for a free T-shirt, which most of them use. “While in the store, they buy other things,” says Stacey Mulinex, bookstore director. “It’s a great way to get students excited about the institution, and there’s value in them wearing a shirt.”
  • THE LOCH SHOP AT CLAYTON STATE UNIVERSITY—Listening to students is critical. “Most presentations with vendors about choosing what to order happen out in the open,” says Scott Fleming, assistant director and course materials manager. “Students see the presentations, and they’ll ask if the item is for sale. When this happens, we know it’s going to be something we should stock because it’s going to be successful.”

The days when a trip to campus automatically included a stop at the bookstore are long gone—but these stores are facing the challenge from online retailers head-on.

Students, like all consumers, have their choice of where to shop—and online giants tempt them with massive selections, super deals and services such as free, fast shipping.

With campus stores now stocking a huge assortment of items beyond books and logo sweatshirts, savvy administrators are paying greater attention to overall online spending habits. A spring 2018 report from the Census Bureau of the Department of Commerce estimated that for the first quarter of 2018, retail e-commerce sales increased 16.4 percent from the same period in 2017.

So, how can campus retail leaders compete with e-commerce? First off, change the strategy. “Campus bookstores are like any other retail business, and we must have the mindset to run it like a retail business, which means we have to evolve and compete in the market,” says Stacey Mulinex, bookstore director at Columbus State Community College in Ohio.


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One key piece is staying front and center in the minds of customers. While campus stores enjoy peak seasons, the rest of the year needs to be considered as well.

“It’s important for the store to be a destination for students at times other than the first few weeks of each semester,” says Rochelle McCoy, course materials manager for California State University, Long Beach. “We are always looking for ways to bring more traffic to the store with hopes of generating potential sales.”

Strategies for staying relevant in the age of e-commerce involve getting back to basics.


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Offer competitive pricing

Retail challenge:

In the past, the heart of the campus bookstore was textbooks, accounting for the great majority of revenue generated. Since 2008-09, slightly more than half of store revenue has been from book sales or rentals, according to National Association of College Stores (NACS) data. With online competition offering lower prices, more and more materials offered via open educational resources, and other factors, the challenge to the college bookstore is severe.

Take action:

Some campus stores are going to inclusive access, a textbook model wherein publishers convert books into digital content, which the entire class buys (for less than the book would have cost) and has access to from day one. As of the 2016-17 academic year, 17 percent of respondents to a NACS survey indicated having such programs, with an additional 23 percent planning one for 2017-18.


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Others have implemented price comparison software. Students are cost conscious, so some campus stores are lowering their prices.

The Colgate University Bookstore uses Verba Compare software, which requires a monthly subscription based on institutional enrollment. Students can log in, view their course lists and then compare prices with other outlets such as Amazon.

“Competitive pricing can hurt margins, but after a year or two, margins even out and overall volume increases,” says Leslie Pasco, director of off-campus retail operations for the New York-based institution.  “Combined with aggressive marketing tactics and stronger relationships with our faculty, our textbook sales have increased.”

Know customer needs

Retail challenge:

When it comes to shopping, consumers demand convenience. It’s what we want, when we want it, at the price we want. Online retailers, many of whom have a well-oiled supply chain that includes massive distribution centers, are able to fulfill customer demands. The campus store, like all brick-and-mortar retail, is
limited on what it can offer in stock.

Take action:

Campus stores have an advantage in having a specific customer base. By being plugged in and recognizing student needs, they can offer products and services to make themselves competitive.

San Diego State University’s campus store includes an “aztecnology”-branded area (the school mascot is the Aztec) for the many students who need a computer or other device while on campus.

The store partners with a credit union on campus to help students finance their tech purchases, with staff even helping them to fill out the necessary loan paperwork, says Kathy Brown, campus stores director. “Not only does it benefit students by building their credit, it also brings them back to the store and helps sales.”

Get them on their way in

Retail challenge:

Every business wants to turn its patrons into repeat customers. The online giants are particularly savvy about advertising and promotions to help build that loyalty. Campus stores, with limited resources, must be strategic about marketing early and often.

Take action:

Campus stores can easily access incoming student information from the registrar and participate in new student orientations.

Stacey Mulinex at Columbus State Community College says it’s important for stores to participate when high school students visit. Her store often offers prospects a coupon for a free T-shirt, which most of them use.

“It’s not just giving them something; students get to pick out a t-shirt they want because we have great assortment in the store,” she says. “While in the store, they buy other things. It’s a great way to get students excited about the institution, and there’s value in them wearing a shirt.”

Give ’em what they want

Retail challenge:

Online retailers use complex algorithms to determine what a consumer may want based on previous purchases and searches. That’s why customers see suggested items after they check out or are notified of products of interest.

Take action:

As complicated as the algorithms are, it’s ultimately guesswork.  A campus store, like other brick-and-mortar retailers, employs buyers to determine the best mix of products. Yet, there are opportunities to drop the guesswork and go to the source—students.

This could happen through surveys or through more qualitative insights.

“We listen to students,” says Scott Fleming, assistant director and course materials manager for Clayton State University in Georgia. “Most presentations with vendors about choosing what to order happen out in the open. Students see the presentations, and they’ll ask if the item is for sale. When this happens, we know it’s going to be something we should stock because it’s going to be successful.”

Be a destination

Retail challenge:

Consider your favorite business or brand. What emotions arise when you think of it? Every business and brand tries to get customers to associate certain feelings with its product. For online-only retailers, this is often done in a variety of ways, including creating engaging content around the brand and sharing stories of satisfied customers.

Take action:

Physical presence gives campus stores a competitive edge.

“We offer free coffee Tuesdays and free donuts twice a term, and invite students to come in and join us for fun and games throughout the year,” says Jerri Lynn Lyddon, director of the Saints Bookstore at Seward County Community College in Kansas. “Students often take us up on this, and they just come in and relax.”

An inviting atmosphere allows students to blow off steam after a challenging day. At Cal State, Long Beach, the store provides tables, sitting areas with TVs and a music lounge in which students can jam on demo guitars.

“Even though a small percentage may be shopping or purchase something,” says Rochelle McCoy, course materials manager, “the store looks better when it has people in it.”


Larry Bernstein is a New Jersey-based writer who frequently covers the retail business.