Follett School Solutions has announced it is exiting the traditional book fair business. The company could not withstand the revenue losses tied to Follett Book Fairs caused by thousands of in-person school book fair cancellations since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. FSS plans to deliver book fairs through November 15 to the approximately 1,200 customers who have scheduled events within that window. For any book fairs currently scheduled to start after that date, FSS will be contacting those customers to cancel. In addition, FSS will be pausing its virtual book eFair business.
According to Britten Follett, CEO of FSS content, the decision was not a result of FSS recently being acquired by equity firm Francisco Partners. "We had obviously been evaluating the book fair business since the pandemic started,” she said. “Out of our portfolio, it was the hardest hit of every segment of our business. Essentially it was halted because schools were not allowing in-person events.” In addition to all book fairs being cancelled in spring 2020, “we had a very, very soft entire last school year [2020-2021] in fair counts,” Britten Follett said. “As things started to reopen, we saw an uptick in fair bookings and we were hopeful that this fall would be a return to normal, with expected fair counts. But with the delta variant we’ve seen another increase in cancellations to the tune of 50-75 fairs canceling each week. We just couldn’t continue to sustain the losses.”
Follett Book Fairs launched in 2017, running a pilot year in the 2017-2018 school year of 180 fairs and offering schools another choice of vendor in a space long dominated by Scholastic Book Fairs. In 2019, FSS opened five book fair fulfillment centers around the country to support its ramp-up of the fair program. That same year, the company introduced eFairs, an online expansion of the traditional book fair program. The 2019-2020 school year was set to be Follett Book Fairs’ best yet with approximately 5,700 fairs booked. But by the end of March 2020, 2,000 of those fairs had canceled.
Though Follett Book Fairs made several pandemic pivots in the subsequent months, including enhancing its eFair program, taking additional Covid safety measures, and offering direct shipping to students’ homes, those efforts were not enough to provide a rebound. “We knew [Follett Book Fairs] was a start-up business and that it was going to take several years to get to profitability,” Britten Follett noted. “But several years has turned into several more. Given there isn’t a clear path to profitability we need to stop it so we can invest in the growth areas that we have in the core business, which is highly successful and delivering a return.”
In addition to ending the book fair operation, Britten Follett noted that FSS is pausing its eFair program as of November 15. “It’s more of a logistical thing than a strategy thing,” she added. As FSS will be winding down its book fair fulfillment centers, “We can’t simultaneously be fulfilling eFairs or get all that inventory to our McHenry [Ill.] facility,” Britten Follett said. During the eFair pause, “We’re going to be resetting on strategy,” she added. “We believe there is a potential growth opportunity for us there, but we can’t pursue it right now.” She is hopeful there will be an eFair relaunch “once we get through the shutdown.”
Scholastic's book fairs business has endured its own steep declines in sales over the last year, but FSS's exit once again leaves the company as the only major player in the field, something not lost on Britten Follett. “Our customers loved our set up and the assortment we offered. And our publisher partners loved that there was another player in the space.” And despite the strides FSS had made in building the business, the pandemic left the company with little choice. “I know this is the right decision at this point in time. Our organization is very healthy; this was truly a pandemic driven shutdown of a business that isn’t able to thrive in this environment,” Britten Follett said.