College stores may have taken the word "book" out of their name, but they still have a lot in common with their independent bookstore brethren. At this year's 88th annual meeting of the National Association of College Stores and Campus Market Expo, at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston (Feb. 27–Mar. 1), many concerns shared with ABA stores, such as online competition and declining print sales, were evident as NACS members discussed the future of books and the College Store of 2015 Project. Introduced last year, the 2015 Project emphasizes store curriculum, connections, services, and frequency.
The timing of this year's CAMEX, just two weeks after Borders's bankruptcy filing, underscored the importance of change and holding on to market share at a time of turmoil in both general and college books. Like trade indies, campus stores have been forced to compete on price and convenience against online retailers, and have added higher-margin nonbook items. In addition, there's Amazon Marketplace, where students sell their books direct, as well as e-books, used books, open source texts, and rentals. Stores that have begun renting textbooks say that they preserve unit sales, but bring in fewer dollars. Ironically, these transitions come at a time when, as Kelly Gallagher, v-p of publishing services at R.R. Bowker, pointed out in a session on "The eBook R/Evolution," textbook sales—print, used and digital—grew by 5%. The average price for a new textbook is now $104.
"Collegiate retailing is at a watershed moment," noted NACS CEO Brian Cartier in an open letter in the CAMEX program. "Twenty-five to 30% of textbook sales being digital within five years is most likely at the low end of estimates.... It is imperative to push yourself out of your comfort zone, and focus on what you need to succeed." For one college bookseller from Maine, that meant seeking out new products among the more than 700 exhibitors. "Our customer count is down," this bookseller, who didn't want PW to use her name, said. "Students are doing online ordering. Amazon's in their face, and they're buying from each other. Textbooks keep the store going, but I'm hoping to find that one special thing to get them to come in."
Others may have already found it—food. In a session titled "Just Say Yes to Doing Things We Never Thought We'd Be Doing," Charles Wilson, bookstore director at Gaston College, in Dallas, N.C., said that he has begun partnering with the school cafeteria. A new Grab-N-Go section has not only helped increase traffic but boosted sales overall. Kim Byrd, manager of the Paddock Convenience Store at Brookdale Community College, in Lyndale, N.J., appeared via video to say that food has been the answer on her campus, especially low-price smoothies and coffee drinks that bring some students in twice a day.
Donald Williams, executive director of Virginia Tech Services at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, which does more than $8 million in sales, countered the pessimism of some of his colleagues at a campus administrator's symposium by saying that he's looking at what's making money—textbooks, clothing, and convenience items. The rest he's willing to cut. Nine months ago, Williams eliminated the general books department when it became a money-losing operation.
The downsizing of Borders has not made him regret his decision, and others may soon weigh closing their trade departments. At a session on "The College Store of 2015," Emily Colton, assistant director for bookstore and textbook service at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, said, "We have a pretty big general book department, although who knows how long we will, given what's happened to books." Like all stores, she must make each section count, especially as income from textbooks declines. A buyer at a community college in California described his textbook sales as much more dire. "They're plummeting," he said.
"Ten years ago CAMEX was all about how to sell textbooks," said Charles Schmidt, NACS director of public relations. "We've tried to emphasize change." And not just at the show. NACS worked with San Diego State University on a "beary-special" Valentine's Day event in conjunction with Build-A-Bear Workshop to develop add-on sales.
Through its research and development arm, NACS Media Solutions, the organization continues to experiment with digital initiatives, including a regional POD program for course content that will go live this summer, as well as a self-publishing initiative. NACS is also getting ready to roll out a national student day, September 6, centered around social responsibility that Schmidt hopes will create a viral buzz among students.