Rich Hershman found himself in the usually welcoming Commonwealth of Virginia when he experienced the conversation that many bookstore managers and administrators dread.
Hershman, director of government relations for the National Association of College Stores, had set up a meeting with a legislator to talk textbook pricing. The legislator told Hershman that his daughter, a college student, was buying all of her textbooks from her school's campus store, then finding and purchasing as many of the same books as possible online-before returning the doubles back to the campus store.
"That's got to be killing you guys," the legislator said. Hershman stopped himself from launching into a lecture. "I wanted to say that it's also contributing to higher costs in higher education," Hershman recalls. "You are going to find the most liberal return policies around at college stores."
Faced with continually growing online competition, college store directors should by no means overhaul their business models. Nor should administrators expect to reap great profits from their campus stores; the average margin on course books for college stores is about 26 percent, according to NACS.
Yet the continuing emergence of websites that provide cheap access to textbooks, as well as other shifts in the market, mean that it's time for college stores to get serious about batting back the competition.
According to a recent survey conducted by Follett Higher Education Group, which runs more than 750 college stores and sells used books and other services to independents, about 19 percent of students surveyed opted to buy at least one book online. According to the same survey, about 11 percent of all textbooks are purchased online (including from a college store's site).
"We still think there's room for it to grow," says Gary Shapiro, senior vice president of intellectual property for Follett, referring to the percentage of books purchased online. "We're saying somewhere between 15 and 20 percent is where it's going to start to level out." Online competitors won't likely overtake campus stores, but they can take a sizable bite out of business. "The 11 percent is roughly $700 million," says Shapiro. "A small percentage of a large number is still a large number."
Over the last year, national media attention and public statements from legislators and policymakers haven't exactly helped the situation for campus bookstores. A July 13 article in The Washington Post mentioned six websites at which students could try to find discounted books (www.campusbookswap.com, www.textbookx.com, www.half.com, www.bigwords.com, www.bestbookbuys.com, and www.amazon.co.uk).
Add in last year's Government Accountability Office report, which found that textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation, and college stores have had some public relations trials on their hands.
Ready to move forward, college stores face new opportunities to keep students coming through their doors. Here are 20 strategies being put to use by bookstore directors and administrators around the country. Consider how each could help keep your textbook business turning.
Pamela Mills has seen the online enemy firsthand and has found ways to combat it. "There is an increase in folks who want the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and we know why they're doing that," says Mills, director of the CU Book Store at the University of Colorado. "They want to go look online."
While it's not the bookstore's job to police whether faculty point students toward online sources, the CU Book Store has a policy that faculty members must give their textbook adoption information to the store, says Mills. For most faculty that is a given, she says-but having the policy in place re-emphasizes current practice and lets people know the importance of turning in their lists.
Reaching out to faculty members represents a priority for many store directors. The University of Colorado's bookstore staff produces an annual fair for new faculty. "It's a one-stop shop," says Mills. "They get information that they might not have otherwise picked up, and they get it all in one place. It also gives us a chance to see who they are, talk to them, and hand them information from the bookstore specifically that talks about adoption and why we need to do what we do."
While CU hasn't tracked data on the success of the faculty fair sponsorship, Mills believes that new faculty members who have attended the fair are more receptive to the bookstore's adoption deadlines in subsequent years.
Peg Godwin, manager of the University of Idaho Bookstore and a member of the Board of Trustees for NACS, works upward with administrators as well as outward with faculty members. "We contribute in the range of $600,000 a year to the institution, and we are an $8 million store," she says. "So it's important for us to talk with the administration about how to position the bookstore so the faculty is engaged with us and is doing business with us, as opposed to doing side deals here and there."
Godwin and bookstore staffers also like to identify professors who are utilizing interesting course materials and models, such as e-books. The bookstore team then tries to support those models and connect with faculty on the content they're looking for, says Godwin. That helps keep the bookstore relevant.
For the University of Delaware Bookstore, part of a proactive approach has been getting student government involved in communicating with faculty.
"Students have become involved in getting orders for us," says Bookstore Manager Jennifer Galt. Members of the Delaware Undergraduate Student Congress have sent letters to faculty members explaining to them that getting adoption orders in (and in on time) would help all students get more money for their books during buyback.
Textbook adoption timelines play critical roles for stores and students alike. When faculty members get their book orders in late, bookstore managers and directors have their hands tied in terms of how many used books they can buy back from students. "Getting adoption out of the faculty members' minds and into our hands is one of our greatest challenges timing-wise," says Mike Tolly, director of course materials for Follett Higher Education Group. Follett encourages staff at its campus stores to gain faculty support, whether by sponsoring guest speakers in classes or offering scholarships.
Follett also teaches staff at its stores to run a program called "One-A-Day," based on the multivitamin concept. The goal: for bookstore managers and staff members to have at least one conversation with a faculty member each day. "It builds bonds and influences how they are talking to students," says Gary Shapiro, senior vice president of intellectual properties.
Behind the drive to compete lies the need to provide stellar service to customers. Textbook reservation programs, in which students go on the bookstore's website in advance of the semester and reserve course materials to be packaged either for pickup on campus or delivery to dorms or apartments, go a long way in creating that satisfaction.
Many bookstore directors are working on developing programs like the one at Gettysburg College (Pa.), which makes the textbook purchase process neat and easy by delivering textbooks right to students' rooms or apartments. Director Kimberly Wolf attributes the quality of her store's program in part to the college's size (about 2,500 students). Stores on larger campuses might not have the ability to deliver, but they can still create impressive programs that have books bundled and ready in store when students arrive.
Prospective students and incoming freshmen can be perfect targets for bookstore promotional campaigns. Michelle Froese, public relations manager for Student and Auxiliary Services at the University of Missouri-Columbia, says bookstores should be stops on campus tours. She also notes that during orientation at Mizzou, the bookstore provides canvas bags for incoming students. "It's free advertising," says Froese. "I love to see 5,000 students going through summer welcome walking around with their bookstore bags."
When students prepare for a new semester they also do some online research. With that in mind, Nebraska Book Company, which operates about 140 campus stores and sells books to 2,500 college bookstores nationwide, recently launched a partnership with Pick-a-Prof, a website that collects student reviews of faculty members.
Through the partnership, students can order textbooks from the campus bookstore right when they choose their courses. If the bookstore uses NBC's CampusHub system, students have the ability to click through to the school's online store, where the correct textbooks are automatically populated into a shopping cart.
Other marketing opportunities have arisen from the partnership. When Pick-a-Prof e-mails students to remind them to provide feedback on professors, the note includes a message urging them to participate in buyback and to buy next semester's books.
Aggressive on the internet front, Nebraska Book Company is also looking into the existing campus blogging community as a realm for promoting campus stores, according to Kevin Gish, vice president of campus relations for NBC. "It's yet another internet tool to drive traffic toward the store," he notes.
"We are encouraging sellers to have a very effective website," says Sue Reidman, NBC vice president of corporate communications. "You want to make sure that you have a site that is driving [students] to purchase there, as opposed to going to Amazon or Half.com."
Beyond blogs, a store's website must have other ways to pull customers in. The University of Idaho Bookstore maintains a robust website that offers a deep level of service. The site's "textbook express" function allows students to type in their course registration information so that a list of the books they need will pop up on screen.
Once students see their lists, they encounter several options in terms of what type of texts to buy. "We are adding a digital component, working with Nebraska Book," notes Godwin, the bookstore's manager. "It's essential that the student has a choice to buy a digital version of the book, that's generally priced around the price of a used book. It is an option that's out there and we need to test that market."
Speaking of digital books, DeVry University, one of Follett Higher Education Group's biggest customers, has already moved all of its online students to digital versions of textbooks, or e-books. Follett's online arm, eFollett, has handled more than two million chapter downloads over the last 18 months-the equivalent of 100,000 units sold, according to Shapiro.
Campus stores might want to get ready for growth in the e-book sector. "We've done a lot of research with students on their desire for e-information," says Shapiro. "In a nutshell, we think that between 10 and 15 percent prefer a digital product over a print product. But we think that upwards of 40 percent might be interested in it."
"Right now the critical thing to do is to offer students an option," he adds. "Do they want it new, used, digital, digital by chapter? Offering more choices to the students will keep a lot of business in the store."
At the University of Delaware, old-school customer service strategies have been expanded in recent years. Here's a simple but valuable one: Be where the customer is.
During buyback, bookstore staffers set up remote buyback locations in key spots on campus. A mobile buyback van then travels around to make the process of selling back even more convenient. "It gives us some flexibility to get to where the students are on a particular day and time," says Galt, the bookstore manager.
Price undoubtedly motivates many students more than anything. Last year, with support from top administration, Galt helped institute a lowest-price guarantee for all textbooks sold by the University of Delaware Bookstore. Now, if a student finds a book at a lower price at a brick-and-mortar competitor (but not online), the bookstore will match that lower price-and then reduce the tickets on any remaining copies in the store.
Clearly the folks running the University of Delaware Bookstore know that money talks: They recently opted to double the money they offer students for used books during buyback. "In the past year, primarily because of lowest-price guarantee and the doubled price for buyback, we've seen our sales improve significantly," says Barbara L. Kreppel, the university's associate vice president for Administrative Services. "Much of this is thinking in the same way as any kind of retail. You have to know what your customer wants, be where they are. It would be easy for us to be the only game in town, but we're not."
"We thought it seemed like a lot of these students who would buy online were the ones who would try to be the first ones to sell back," says Doug Mason, manager of the Brigham Young University-Idaho University Bookstore. In 2005, the university launched a Textbook Loyalty Program that tracks student buying. Bookstore staffers swipe students' I-cards when books are purchased, and again during buyback. Students who purchased from the store are given the opportunity to sell their books back sooner, and for more money.
According to Mason, the program has improved customer attitudes and had a positive impact on market share. In a survey, 75 percent of students said they liked the idea.
As more people go online to buy and sell books, campus store directors are concerned about a diminishing supply of used books. Wolf of Gettysburg College browses online competitors to ramp up her own inventory of used books. Since classes at Gettysburg tend to be small, Wolf has been able to locate books to fill many faculty requests.
Some folks take Wolf's strategy further: At a recent conference, Wolf heard one bookstore director talk about how he peruses websites to find cheap books, even if a faculty member has not yet put in an adoption request for the title. "He will buy books to get them off the market," shares Wolf. "He said, 'Why do we want to make it easier for our students to say the bookstore's not the cheapest game in town?' "
Parents and students, fueled by reports in the mainstream media, generally believe textbooks are just too expensive. Lorry McMahon, bookstore manager for the Washington & Jefferson College (Pa.) Bookstore, works against that mindset by doling out brochures from NACS answering the question, "Why do my textbooks cost so much?" The pamphlet breaks down the textbook pricing process to give students and their families valuable knowledge," she explains. She also points out that money made at the bookstore goes back into the college-and therefore ultimately benefits students.
Pricing is just one challenging situation that bookstore managers and directors face. But with proactive mindsets and the right strategies in play, they can ease worries all around.
It's time to forget about competitors such as Amazon UK, and focus on the future.