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Campus Retail

Look before you lease out your college store

Alternatives to outsourcing your campus store to a corporate retail operator
University Business, October 2016
Robert A. Walton is CEO of the National Association of College Stores
Robert A. Walton is CEO of the National Association of College Stores

According to a recent survey of auxiliary directors conducted by the National Association of College Stores, we know that the top reason (41 percent) for outsourcing the campus store is to eliminate operational headaches and simplify processes. Those are valid reasons.

Managing a retail operation is a complex business—and quite different from other higher education revenue operations such as enrollment, advancement, and even housing and dining. It is compounded by the equally complex business of sourcing and delivering course materials, with increasing emphasis on affordability and availability. This includes numerous format and delivery options that may not be well-known to faculty.

However, in the pursuit of streamlined processes and reduced risk, a significant question is often overlooked: Do you want a store that reflects the personality and values of your campus or do you want a cookie-cutter corporate showroom, focused on selling products and making a profit?

If you have handed off your campus store to a corporate retail operator or are contemplating it, and you haven’t considered that fundamental question, maybe you should think again.

Your campus store is the window through which students, parents, alumni and visitors view your institution. It is a core aspect of their experience with your brand. They interact with the store as an extension of the institution.

Yet, it’s understandable that, over the past decade or so, many institutions have opted to turn over their bookstore to a corporate retail operator that promises to take away all of these operational headaches—including the costs and risks associated with the store’s inventory—and deliver a healthy check in return.

However, there are some things that these operators are not better at doing. Institutions that have relinquished their stores are experiencing unmet revenue and service expectations and unintended tradeoffs. Among them is a limited ability to meet the needs of students and faculty, reduced flexibility in sourcing course materials and products, and a store environment that isn’t reflective of the institution and its mission.

As a result, many institutions are choosing to reclaim operation of their campus stores.

Technologies

You don’t have to sacrifice the culture of your campus to achieve operational efficiencies. Emerging technologies and alternate store-management models aimed specifically at the needs of college stores are creating potentially game-changing advantages. Consider these breakthroughs:

  • Adoption-through-delivery price-transparency technology can dramatically improve course materials affordability by prodiving cost information to faculty and students before purchasing.
  • Improvements in open educational resources are having a significant impact on affordability of course materials.
  • Retail reporting systems deliver detailed revenue and cash flow data that guides store managers toward increasingly stronger financial performance.

Models

In addition to the full-lease and institutionally operated models, administrators are investigating hybrid arrangements:

  • There’s the physical store and the virtual outsourced partnership, in which the physical store sells either course materials or general merchandise while the other is virtual and managed by an outsourced partner. An example of this is Ohio University, which manages a spirit shop and has contracted with MBS Direct to handle course materials.
  • There’s also a 100 percent virtual course materials store, where all materials are purchased online and delivered to students, or to a pickup location, as in the case of UMass Amherst and Amazon. A variation of this model, at UC Davis, is Amazon’s “bolt on” solution— including a full-service, institutionally run store plus an Amazon partnership, in which the store’s branded online storefront is supplemented with Amazon lockers (self-service pickup points) and a full-service counter inside the store.

If you’re considering a change to the operation of your campus store, it’s essential that your solution is aligned with the objectives and mission of your institution, and provides the service, affordability and format options that your students and faculty need.

Robert A. Walton is CEO of the National Association of College Stores.

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