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College campus stores continue to evolve

University Business, December 2017

The closure of Amazon’s virtual bookseller at UMass Amherst underscores once again the need for campus stores to diversify services. It also highlights ongoing efforts by administrators to reduce the cost of course materials through online textbooks, open educational resources and other initiatives.

“I don’t think anybody assumes Amazon isn’t a pretty sharp outfit,” says Bob Walton, CEO of the National Association of College Stores. “If Amazon doesn’t want to be in the textbook business, what does that say about the textbook business?”

Progressive campus stores are offering new services, such as taking on the role of a campus copy center and print shop or serving as a hub for campus tours.

Amazon’s five-year contract with UMass, launched in 2015, brought big changes to the campus because it replaced the physical store with digital orders and a pickup/drop-off location.

The company still has partnerships at a number of universities.

At the same time, publishers have been adjusting, allowing students to rent course materials online in an effort to cut into used-book sales, Walton says.  

Publishers are also working with colleges to include course materials as a part of tuition. In this “all-inclusive” model, which relies on volume rather than the large profit margins of print, students have automatic access to online books from the first day of class and must opt-out to avoid being charged.

Publishers, who capture a larger percentage of the marketshare, say few students choose not to use the digital books, which can be half the price, or less, of print versions.

“There are all kinds of new distribution models and it’s a challenge to manage them all, and to keep faculty apprised of their options,” says Fred Weber, CEO of the Independent College Bookstore Association.

“That’s one of the vulnerabilities of a program that does not involve a dedicated professional with an on-campus presence to build relationships with the key stakeholders.”

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