“Physical book fairs have been impacted more than any other segment of our business,” said Britten Follett, executive v-p for Follett School Solutions, describing some of the challenges faced by the company due to the pandemic-era school closures across the country. Among the strategies devised to work through that reality, Follett has made a number of enhancements to its traditional book fair procedures as well as to its virtual eFair options, including the ability to ship eFair purchases directly to students’ homes.

In spring 2020 when the pandemic first took hold and it became evident that schools were not going to be in session for some time, “physical book fairs started canceling at an alarming rate for the entire school year,” Follett said. When a school called to cancel a physical fair, the company’s sales team spoke to them about the advantages of holding eFairs instead. The eFair had always been billed as an extension of the physical book fair, Follett explained. “It’s a fundraising opportunity for the school, and there’s an experience around the librarian handing the purchased books out to the students in the library,” she said. But the new landscape during the Covid-19 crisis has put the eFair center stage.

“Of all the physical fairs that were canceled, 68% of those schools were interested in running an eFair and the majority of them were asking for us to be able to ship to the home,” Follett added. “There have definitely been some wonderful stories of creativity and perseverance on the part of educators to ensure that kids get the books they want and need,” she said. “But at the same time, we knew we needed to make this process easier; that was customers’ number one request. The development team got on that and now we’re able to ship to home.”

The ship-to-home option has been very well received so far, but there are also new variables involved in providing the service. “It’s more expensive for us to box up all those individual orders and ship them, so the [book fair-generated] rewards are slightly less.,” Follett said. “I’ve heard from customers who are disappointed about that, but at the same time we have to cover our costs so we can ensure that we’re able to give back to the school. We know eFairs are a fundraiser, it’s just that we’re not able to give quite as much because it’s a lot more labor-intensive to ship orders to the home.”

Though eFairs have been more prevalent of late, some schools are still running physical book fairs. “For every school that wants to do a physical fair, we’re committed to giving them one,” Follett said. She pointed out customer Lake George (N.Y.) Elementary School, which held its first ever drive-through book fair in early December. “The librarian had the cases along the side of the driveway to the school and parents were driving their kids through the line,” Follett said, describing the set-up. “Teachers stood there with the books and if the kid wanted to see the book, the teacher held it up for them, and kind of paged through it. At the end of the line the parents used their credit card and checked out. It was definitely one of the more creative models I’ve seen.” Other physical book fair scenarios have included holding a socially distanced event outdoors.

“I think the biggest challenge with physical fairs in general has been that school leaders don’t want to have guests in the school,” Follett said. “But when it’s the student doing their own shopping with no parent input, it’s a different experience,” she added. “We’ve seen some fairs not [take in] as much revenue as they would normally because there isn’t a parent night or a grandparent night or it’s not tied to an event. It’s just however they can safely get the students to experience the fair. And that varies drastically depending on what part of the country you’re in and what the school district regulations are.”

Follett has enhanced its safety protocols (PPE, social distancing, frequent sanitization of surfaces and hand washing, etc.) along its full operational chain, from warehouse through delivery, for all types of fairs. Schools holding a physical fair can consult various instructional resources offering information, tips, and suggestions. They will also receive signage and materials to encourage physical distancing, mask-wearing, and other safety measures during their event. Follett offers a smaller footprint, low-touch fair as another on-site option, too. And each low-touch fair has an online companion component where students’ families and friends can virtually shop a more extensive book collection.

The Road Ahead

Follett noted, “We still have hundreds of fairs on the books for spring. I think there are a lot of schools that are holding out hope that by the end of spring they might be able to do a physical event, that there will be a return to some semblance of normal. Obviously, we’re prepared at this point to see a lot of those cancel as well because we just don’t know what the coming months are going to bring.”

One thing that is known about the next few months is that the eFair model will feature another enhancement. “One of the biggest customer requests we’ve had on eFairs is that the books be sorted by student and grade,” Follett said, which allows for easier distribution of purchases shipped to schools. “For spring we’ll have the books put in individual bags.”

In the broader assessment, Follett reflected on the state of the various Follett School Solutions segments. “Efairs have far overperformed what we ever expected for the school year due to the pandemic,” she said, “and book fairs continue to struggle.” On the traditional book business side, she offered, “We’re calling December 2020 a ‘December to remember’ for several reasons. One is that incoming orders were up 10% over the same period in 2019, for November and December.” She indicated a few factors that influenced those results. “We had several large classroom orders that came in, and then we had the CARES Act funding, which expired on December 31. We know that there was no real defined process on how those dollars got allocated to states, and then ultimately to the individual schools, so schools often got this money late and needed to spend it. They were scrambling to get an order in as quickly as possible and it had to be invoiced by December 31 to use the CARES Act funding.”

The year-end flurry of activity prompted Follett as a company to delay its annual inventory process, according to Britten Follett. “Normally we shut down and do inventory during December because it’s a slow time, with librarians and students at home. We decided to delay that because of the surge in orders,” she said. “So, combine the CARES Act funding with those several very large classroom orders and the extreme demand in eFairs—it’s a really good problem to have,” she said. “Obviously it’s not enough to make up for the declines we saw when we had schools shut down for three and four months, but it’s definitely a positive trend and one we’re hoping continues.”

Follett said her customers are trying to look to the new calendar year—and their new budgets—as well. “We’ve had about 30,000 customers respond to a survey on Titlewave [Follett’s online platform for content purchases] asking them are they in school, hybrid, or remote; is their budget higher or lower and by what percent; and are they shifting their budget to ebooks.” On a very macro level, according to Follett, the responses indicated that it’s too early for schools to tell what their budgets will be. “That’s partly because principals and superintendents were holding budgets at the district level because they needed to understand what the school year was going to look like,” she explained. “If the school library is not open, the idea of buying a traditional print library book is not a good use of funds,” Follett added. “Now we’re halfway through the school year and we still don’t know what the school year is going to look like across the country. Schools are either buying ebooks because they know they’re going to be remote for the next few months, or they’re doing a mix, or they’re buying books that they know they’re going to want to have for next school year when the library does reopen—super popular books, things with lots of publicity. Then they’ll fill in the rest of their collection based on their funding. It varies greatly depending on where you are in the world.”