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Not Your Parents' Campus Store

Economic realities and innovative merchandising are transforming the traditional campus bookstore.
University Business, October 2012
What’s missing in this picture? Staff at the Brigham Young University Bookstore wheel out the textbook shelves after the term is underway to make room for a clothing boutique. The store now offers a wider array of merchandise that any other time in its 106-year history.
What’s missing in this picture? Staff at the Brigham Young University Bookstore wheel out the textbook shelves after the term is underway to make room for a clothing boutique. The store now offers a wider array of merchandise that any other time in its 106-year history.

At the River Store in Ft. Pierce, Fla., it’s hard to miss the course textbooks stacked along multilevel, metal shelves, as well as the array of insignia T-shirts, sweatpants, hoodies, and caps bearing the Indian River State College logo and nickname, the Pioneers. These offerings have long been what generations of students, faculty, and alumni have come to expect at many of the almost 4,500 college stores across the country.

But the River Store, which shares a building with the dining hall and post office on IRSC’s main campus, is proving a pioneer in more than nickname. And items such as textbooks and insignia clothing are just part of a newer, wider-reaching approach that is changing business as usual.

Turn to the right after entering the front doors and you’ll pass displays of everyday clothing without the college name, a food section containing ample supplies of everything from Pop Tarts to canned soup, and a freezer crammed with Healthy Choice and Lean Cuisine entrees, as well as an assortment of ice cream products. Keep walking and you’ll come to a separate gathering area with green armchairs, red swivel stools, and tables set between a 42-inch flatscreen television and a well-equipped coffee bar wedged into the far corner. On alternate Mondays, between noon and 1 p.m., a sign announces, the IRSC Spanish Club holds its Spanish conversation table here.

Across the hall, a separate store serves the school’s medical students. And down the hall, yet another store offers cards and gifts; alumni paraphernalia; and a nook equipped with four computers and a printer available for free student use.

“If you can get students to come in and sit down, they’ll walk around and look at the items,” says store manager Lissa Reilly, referring to both the computer area here and the aforementioned lounge and coffee-bar area.

A nook called the Paper Jam attracts foot traffic to the River Store at Indian River State College.The River Store management team is hardly alone in doing something about foot traffic and changing the mix of products and services available to customers. Whereas at one time college stores enjoyed a virtual monopoly on textbook sales, the option of buying textbooks from online vendors, renting them, or downloading them to e-readers has cut into once-dependable revenues. And a growing number of these businesses are transforming themselves to hold their own, and then some.

“A typical college store used to be a place to meet the academic mission of the school. We provided textbooks, merchandise for students, and a place for alumni to build loyalty,” explains Vicki Morris Benion, executive director of the National Association of College Stores (NACS) Foundation. “It was very clear to us that we needed to engage our students in different ways.”

So, two years ago, NACS launched an initiative, dubbed “Defining the College Store of 2015,” which encourages its more than 3,000 member stores to reinvent themselves. Among the imperatives NACS laid out were making traditional textbooks available in multiple forms, from e-books to rentals; getting student input in deciding what else to sell; and developing such additions as grocery sections, cafes, and gathering areas to keep students coming back after the textbook “rush” at the beginning of each term.

“Stores might have known they had to branch out, but they needed some education,” Benion says, adding that NACS distributed grants to more than a dozen schools to help in the planning process.

Holding On to the Textbook Trade

The first priority of Roger Reynolds, who has directed the Brigham Young University (Utah) bookstore for the past 13 years, has involved reclaiming a textbook business that has fallen off by 25 percent since 2007. Other college stores around the country report a similar decrease in business. And in a NACS survey earlier this year, students estimated their annual expenditure on required course materials—wherever they obtain them—at $655, down from $702 four years ago.

“It’s certainly been a challenge,” Reynolds admits, noting that the federal Higher Education Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2008 required college bookstores to distribute lists of required books and their ISBN numbers during registration periods, so students would have the option to buy them more economically elsewhere.

The BYU Bookstore has countered with an online application dubbed My Booklist. “We give students the title, ISBN, and edition of the books for their courses, but on the same page, we list all of our options—new, used, rental, digital copies,” Reynolds says, adding that the ability to buy textbooks in any of these forms and at the click of a mouse has kept more business in-house.

The store has also become an affiliate of by providing a portal to the online bookseller, while receiving an eight percent commission in the process. In addition, it has staked its claim as one of the first bookstores in the United States to buy the Expresso Book Machine—which can print and bind softbound books that the store does not have in stock.

But the biggest change in the textbook business, most observers agree, has been the explosion in rentals. NACS’ Benion points out that less than three years ago, only about 300 college stores offered textbook rentals. That number has skyrocketed to 2,500.

“The evolution that we’ve seen is having a business where you are renting out the assets. Renting textbooks is the most sought-after option for students,” says Elio Distaola, the director of public and campus relations for Follett. Nearly all of the almost 900 campus stores managed by Follett now offer the Rent-A-Text program, which was first piloted in 2009. Distaola reports that more than half of the textbooks at Follett-managed stores now go out as rentals. Those books are due back after final exams and cost about half as much as new textbooks.

Starting last year, Barnes & Noble College, which manages 650 campus bookstores, has bent its marketing efforts towards social media. Using the Class of 2015 Facebook pages created for incoming freshmen at various universities, says Lisa Malat, vice president of marketing and operations, “we did a lot of listening and analyzing of conversations.”

What resulted was B&N’s Freshman Connection, through which the company’s college stores stay in online contact with new students months from the date of their acceptance. Those students get answers to questions from whether financial aid debit cards were accepted in the college store (yes, they are) to what’s involved with renting textbooks.

The online conversations also make a point of proactively telling students how to save on course textbooks. “They’ve become a huge medium for us that can create a very personal two-way dialogue,” Malat explains. “We’re educating early and often.”

Growing the Retail Side

College stores also have dealt with the altered landscape—and revenues—of the textbook business by launching more aggressively into retailing. “Today, it’s much more important to focus on true retail management,” says Jackie Middleton, the associate vice president for facilities and auxiliaries at The College of Wooster (Ohio). “We needed to grow retail sales to make up for the shortfall by selling what we’ve never sold before.”

Among its more recent initiatives, the college’s Florence O. Wilson Bookstore has brought a growing number of technology products and peripherals into the mix. “Everybody on a college campus today is walking around with headphones or earbuds,” Middleton observes.

Some college stores now include mini-Apple stores, and Brigham Young sells various e-readers, as well as cellphones and plans. But the new retailing push goes well beyond high-tech. “We’re bringing in new products that we never thought we’d be bringing in, such as health supplements and protein powders for students who take their workouts seriously,” Reynolds says.

Charles Schmidt, NACS’ director of public relations, sees a silver lining in growing the retail side of the business. While new textbook sales may net between four and six cents on every dollar, he explains, “what you really make money on are the hoodies, T-shirts, and computer accessories.”

There’s also a new emphasis on ready-to-wear fashion in many stores, leveraged by their central locations and informed by student consultants. “We have employed more and more student workers and let them make more of the buying decisions on the clothing front,” says Wooster’s Middleton. “We’ve created hipper boutique sections where students can take a quick look at a shirt and say, ‘That design mimics the big retailers at the mall.’ ”

At Brigham Young, Reynolds wheels out the textbook shelves after the first weeks of the term to make room for a clothing boutique, and he has partnered with companies such as Bed Bath & Beyond to sell their products on campus.

Keeping in mind the values of a younger generation also has begun to pay off for the store. “A few years ago, we brought in chocolates and snacks made by a company that contributes a portion of sales to rainforest preservation, and we were very successful with those products,” Middleton reports. “Sometimes an item as small as that can bring a student into the stores. You can do small things to increase sales and get back some of the foot traffic you’ve lost.”

While playing up school insignia merchandise before big tournaments and games still pays, say college store managers, so does building around Earth Day and products related to sustainability.

Staying Relevant

The new driving force for today’s college stores, say Middleton and others, is becoming—and remaining—relevant to the students who make up the primary customer base.

“You get to the point where you think you’re hip, but the kids jump ahead of it,” Schmidt from NACS points out. “I say to our (largest middle-aged) store directors, if you feel comfortable in your store, there’s probably something wrong. It’s the 18- to 22-year-olds who need to be comfortable.”

BYU’s Reynolds used an NACS grant to survey faculty and student preferences and run focus groups. “We really needed to get into the heads of our customers, because things were changing,” he admits.

Besides hearing about new retail directions to pursue, Reynolds learned that the respondents wanted the school’s nicknamed “Cougar Wear” to move front and center. “Prior to the 2015 initiative, our Cougar Wear was at the back of the store,” he says. “But after our faculty and student research, we moved it forward. They expected to see it as soon as they walked into the store. Now it really looks rah, rah. And we’ve seen sales increase by 10 percent for those goods.”