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Campus retail: Who let the books out?

Transitioning to digital-only sales of course materials, some campus stores are shuttering. Others are selling anything BUT the books.
University Business, July 2015
  • Changing face of the bookstore: At Arizona State University, books have been removed from the campus store. Now called the ASU Marketplace, it includes a technology store.  PHOTO: Follett Higher Education Group
  • Arizona State University’s campus store now also features a wine bar. The store serves as a central hub for ASU brand and culture, as well as a place for the Tempe community to connect to ASU. Textbooks are sold elsewhere on campus.  PHOTO: Follett Higher Education Group

Faculty and students at Bridgewater College in Virginia complained increasingly in recent years about the unavailability of textbooks at the campus bookstore. To control inventory, the store stocked only a percentage of materials required if everyone purchased what was expected.

Campus business officers also noted a rapid decline in textbook revenue and related commissions, as students pursued lower-cost alternatives to purchasing books from the store.

As a result, in fall 2014 Bridgewater opened an online-only bookstore for textbooks and course materials. As for the brick-and-mortar outlet, it became the BC Campus Store, a retail location that sells all the typical items—except books and other coursework necessities.

Bridgewater isn’t an anomaly. An increasing number of colleges and universities now sell all textbooks and course materials online.

Campus bookstores, meanwhile, have been reconfigured for other merchandise or have even closed. The idea seems to be considered particularly by smaller colleges, but large institutions such as the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the seven-campus City Colleges of Chicago have also been trying out the online-only concept.

Laura Massie, spokesperson for the National Association of College Stores, has noticed "an increase in conversation around this," likely due to the amount of companies competing for the opportunity to provide such services. While she says there are no specific numbers to validate that it is becoming a trend for campus stores, student purchase options have certainly increased.  "Rentals, digital and custom course packs are growing in popularity,” says Massie. ”These formats provide price-point options for students that can allow them to stretch their dollars a little further.” 

Here’s a closer look at how colleges and universities are rethinking the physical presence of their campus stores.

Motivations for change

Bridgewater officials wanted to help students control the escalating costs of course materials, says Anne Keeler, vice president for finance.

In addition, administrators hoped to stop the rapid sales decline. “Commissions were dropping quickly under the old model and it was becoming questionable whether the big bookstore operators would even be willing to operate a small store like ours for more than a few more years,” Keeler says.

Officials knew they had to act quickly. “Students’ use of online sources for textbooks was happening with or without us,” says Keeler.

Customer service issues also influence change. A few years ago, administrators at Bethany College in Kansas became concerned that “too many students were not purchasing their books to be ready for the first day of class—or worse, were not buying them at all,” says Kenneth Macur, provost and dean.

It’s a national problem, according to a U.S. PIRG Education Fund survey that found 65 percent of college students have refused to purchase a textbook due to price; 94 percent of those say they’ve suffered academically as a result.

NACS data, based on a fall 2014 survey of nearly 10,600 students from 24 campuses, paints a rosier picture, with 69 percent of students saying they had obtained all of their course materials. Two-thirds of those who didn't purchase everything said it was because they didn't believe the materials were academically necessary, while just more than half cited that the materials were too expensive.

After attempting an online-only bookstore, Bethany officials launched a textbook rental program this year with Rafter. The college still operates a small campus store that sells clothing and school supplies in the same location. But when classes begin, students report to a large meeting room where book company representatives distribute bags of books, paid for with tuition, so students are prepared for every class. Reusable books and course materials are returned at the end of the semester.

Roanoke College in Virginia is transitioning to an online-only textbook store by this fall with the help of Akademos. The former bookstore will remain open to sell other merchandise, and with the school’s “Maroon Card,” students will still be able to use financial aid dollars for book purchases through the online bookstore.

“Many students were going online anyway to order their books,” says Mark Noftsinger, vice president of business affairs. “The college really felt that this could lower the cost of books to students.”

Massie from NACS cautions institutional officials considering the move, however, to be aware that unforeseen delays in shipping or other issues could impact students' preparation at the start of the semester. 

Recapturing revenues

Online-only sales may mean less revenue from textbooks—at least at first.

Roanoke College, for instance, expects a significant impact on its bottom line because the college will receive commission only on web sales of textbooks rather than sales of textbooks both in-store and online. However, if students perceive savings by purchasing through the online bookstore, more may opt to purchase textbooks. In addition, Noftsinger says the bookstore is working to ramp up merchandise sales to assist in offsetting any loss of revenue.

Some institutions have found ways to overcome these losses. For instance, The College of Idaho moved textbooks sales online in 2013, but MBS Direct, its vendor, offers a mobile app that can be used inside the remaining store (or anywhere else). Although the campus store no longer stocks course materials, selling spiritwear and other items off-site—such as at athletic events—has boosted the bottom line. Sales of these other items are expected to double for the year.

Changing a campus store’s focus also can impact various campus departments, such as the post office. At Bridgewater, post office staffers were “very apprehensive” about increased shipping volume related to the online book purchases, Keeler says. But while volume did increase, it was a manageable difference, she says, adding that “many students had been shopping online for textbooks for the past several years.”

At some institutions, faculty have had to accommodate students who haven’t received their textbooks by the first few classes. “On the other hand,” Keeler says, “faculty are no longer irritated by very early adoption deadlines established by the previous store management company in order to make buybacks more profitable.” While federal requirements set guidelines for textbook adoption dates, she says her school's previous bookstore vendor regularly set deadlines in advance of federal requirements.

Steps to a successful change

Administrators should have clear reasons—such as eliminating problems with managing inventory risk—for revamping a bookstore, says Massie of NACS. Discussing concerns with leaders of similarly sized schools is a good idea first. Then the virtual bookstore concept can be compared to what could be accomplished by minor modifications to current operations.

It’s also important to ensure a proposed change makes sense financially and academically, and that it’s amenable to both faculty and students. At Bethany College, the faculty curriculum committee, faculty senate and the student government association were all participants in the decision-making process. After being presented with the committee’s research on the options, 90 percent of the faculty voted for a change, Macur says.

Keeler recommends selecting a faculty liaison to coordinate the relationship between faculty members and the online course-material provider. The person should have classroom teaching experience to understand the needs of faculty members in the classroom. The liaison should also be someone respected by the faculty members, as he or she may need to champion the new model.

To ensure a successful transition, institutions must remain committed to customer service. Roanoke College has plans to place customer service representatives in the campus store at the beginning of each semester to assist students who want to order books online from several terminals, Noftsinger says. Remember that change takes time—even institutions that take careful steps to make the right decision and maintain high levels of service will experience bumps, Macur says.

For instance, in his experience, Bethany College faculty members are happy with the online system, but students, especially those nearing graduation, have complained about the changes. “But one year from now, this will be the way we’ve always done it,” he predicts.

Bridgewater administrators have heard very few complaints. “Students experienced little change, because they were very familiar with online shopping experiences,” Keeler says. Because the school’s vendor is not an exclusive provider, she adds, students can choose to purchase online from other providers if they’re not satisfied, or, as she puts it, “vote with their dollars.”

Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer.

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