It’s not just trade bookstores that are feeling the pinch from online retailers and other discounters. At the National Association of College Stores’ Campus Market Expo held earlier this month at the Salt Lake Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, NACS’s OnCampus Research division reported that approximately 67% of students comparison shop for textbooks, and close to a third, or 31%, bypass their school stores entirely. Even when they do browse, that isn’t always with the intention of buying a book. One bookseller at a prep school in Florida found students using cell phones to photograph assigned reading. Many of NACS’s initiatives and educational sessions at CAMEX addressed shrinking margins and encouraged booksellers to create relationships with students to bring them into their stores.
In addition, several technology companies used CAMEX to unveil programs and platforms designed to get students to shop local. Two—SwoopThat and BookRenter—rebranded just days before CAMEX got underway. After launching SwoopThat six months ago as a peer-to-peer site intended to circumvent the school store, founder and recent college graduate Jonathan Simkin said that he realized that the school store prices were not set to gouge students. In fact, stores often earn a profit margin of only between 3% and 4% on books. So he shifted course to try to change that. SwoopThat, now HubEdu, is in the midst of launching a pilot program with software that enables the bookstore to optimize its pricing and enables students to comparison shop. When students purchase at the campus store, the bookstore gets 100% of the purchase; the store and HubEdu both earn a commission from textbook sales at online retailers like Amazon, Half.com, Barnes & Noble, and Chegg. “At HubEdu,” said Simkin, “we recognize that traditional bricks-and-mortar stores are the critical center of the college ecosystem.”
If HubEdu is aiming to be the Kayak of textbooks, BookRenter, now a division of Rafter, prefers to think of itself as an Open Table for textbooks. BookRenter, which grew 100% last year, is used on over 500 college campuses and will soon give students the option of picking up their books at their campus bookstore. “We’re not competing with campus stores,” maintained Rafter CEO Mehdi Maghsoodnia. “We want to float the demand back to you.” He sees rental as a game changer, an opportunity for campus stores to regain market share lost to the online used-books business. An administrator from one Texas school noted in a forum on BookRenter that it saw its profits increase 28% last semester after using BookRenter. As for the Rafter platform, it is free to colleges and provides data on what books and texts other professors use to provide comparisons on teaching the same subject.
Follett, through its new Skyo.com brand, launching March 16, is also looking for ways to help stores counter the drop in unit sales. According to a spokesperson at the Follett booth, Skyo is intended to compete head-to-head with Chegg, Half.com, BookRenter, and Amazon. The company is investing “significant” marketing dollars to ensure that it ranks high in Web searches, the spokesperson said. When students go to Skyo.com, they will have to select their school and then will be routed to the college store Web page. Like BookRenter and HubEdu, Follett will pay schools a commission.
Baker & Taylor, too, is working in the campus online bookstore space. It hosts Web sites for 215 college stores, in addition to 240 independent bookstore sites, and recently introduced dynamic textbook pricing. “Our goal is to help the campus bookstore keep its customers,” said Richard Smith, v-p of sales and national sales manager, East, for the higher education and independent retail markets. Unlike many campus Web sites, he noted, B&T offers a broad selection of other products beyond textbooks, including trade books, DVDs, and music.
While textbook sales are important—they can comprise as much as 69% of a campus store’s sales and up to 95% for a community college, according to Mark Nelson, CIO of NACS and v-p of strategy and development for NACS Media Solutions—they aren’t the only potential draw for bricks-and-mortar campus stores. NACS is working on a range of print and e-book products, including self-publishing through a new partnership with Lulu, and custom course materials as part of its Grow Custom, Grow Green initiative. And although some campus stores have turned to the Espresso Book Machine, including nearby Brigham Young University Bookstore in Provo, the first campus store to have one in the U.S., the startup price is still high. NACS Media Solutions is in the midst of piloting an affordable regional POD network in partnership with RR Donnelley that will roll out at the end of the year. The goal is to significantly reduce shipping costs.
NACS is fostering relationships between stores and students in other ways. Last fall 561 schools participated in the inaugural National Student Day to build deeper connections with students by celebrating student volunteerism. At the annual meeting, CEO Brian Cartier encouraged every NACS store to participate in the second NSD, to be held in October. “We own this, this is ours,” he said. NACS continues to add partnerships aimed at bringing in students, including ones with Boots Cosmetics, which will sell an exclusive line of shower gel in college stores; Life is good®; and a kiosk for recharging laptops and cell phones.
Like trade stores, college stores are using social networking to connect with customers. Amy DeLashmutt, marketing manager of University Book Store at Iowa State University in Ames, spoke at one of the several workshops on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. “The biggest surprise I had about social media,” she said, “is that it’s not just about your college students. It’s about alumni.” She’s also found that it’s about connecting with students thinking of coming to the school. University Book Store is one of the few that’s begun dabbling with social commerce. “We sell right off our Facebook page, which has worked really well for us,” said DeLashmutt. “Customers aren’t seeking you out, products are seeking them. When they purchase, it shows up in their news feed.”
Whether these programs will be enough to change the course of college store sales isn’t clear. As Cartier said at the annual meeting, “Those who know me know I do have a passion for this industry. It’s going to become an obsession. These are very, very turbulent times. We all know that. We need to learn how to do things differently.” Among the other projects NACS is working on is The Hub, a virtual networking platform to connect with member stores, which will operate like a private Facebook. It is being developed in partnership with Higher Logic and will roll out in 2013. Also slated is a Campus Retailing Futures Think Tank with industry leaders in Cleveland in mid-July.
To create synergy with trade booksellers, who are also working to grow market share, next year’s CAMEX will be held at the same time and in the same city as the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute 8—Kansas City, Mo., February 22– 26.