The digital transition and sputtering economy are not only bringing changes to general bookstores, but to college bookstores as well. College stores are dealing with a changed landscape of their own: more textbook choices that now include rentals and digital texts; trade book sections with sales declines; and now that college apparel, or spirit wear, has become a fashion statement, other retailers, including Victoria’s Secret, are getting in on the action.

The National Association of College Stores, with its 2015 initiative, has been trying to impress on member stores that different thinking is called for: drop the word “book” from their names, for example, and offer nontraditional products and services, from dry cleaning to FedEx. “You can’t just be about textbooks,” explains Charles Schmidt Jr., director of public relations at NACS. “The kids want to go into the college store and have the same service as Urban Outfitters—the bright lights and the pounding music.” To find out how college bookstores are balancing the edgy with school materials, PW talked with the three largest bookstore managers on American campuses: Follett Higher Education Group, Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, and Nebraska Book Company. Together, they operate roughly 1,860 campus stores, or over 40% of the 4,500 stores serving the college market.

Perhaps no campus retailer has undergone a bigger transformation than Nebraska Book Company. Although it is in a prearranged bankruptcy, which means that most of its large creditors agreed to its reorganization plan before it filed in June, Nebraska is in the midst of remaking the 280 stores it manages. Under the direction of Steve Clemente, senior v-p of the college stores division and former group v-p at Target Stores, Nebraska has rebranded its stores “Neebo.” And this fall it launched its first off-campus, college-themed clothing store in Lincoln, Neb.

“Textbook is still the number one category, but there’s nothing exciting or sexy about textbooks. We all do textbooks really well. Our differentiation is our Neebo brand,” says Clemente. “Our goal is to create a connection with our guests, or students.” Clemente believes NBC’s mall store/spirit store concept is very scalable, and the company has its eye on 50–70 markets. “We are competing in a market we didn’t compete in before,” Clemente says, adding that NBC plans to be “the best college outfitter out there. We consider ourselves nimble. Sometimes being number three is good.”

Follett, by far the largest campus operator, manages 950 locations and serves as a wholesaler for another 1,600 independent stores. Its director of public & campus relations, Elio DiStaola, regards the changes in services and product lines happening around the country as campus evolution, not revolution, something that Follett has done successfully for over 130 years. It has spirit stores and healthy grab ’n’ go convenience food. Still, he sees the biggest opportunity in textbooks.

“Just 10 years ago,” says DiStaola, “we were stuck in the new or used paradigm.” In 2009, the company piloted its Rent-A-Text program. Last academic year, Follett rented 2.5 million textbooks. This fall it updated its CafeScribe digital platform with more study tools, more book titles, and increased accessibility on different types of devices in order to better position itself for the day when digital textbooks hit the tipping point. Even with lower-cost options like rental and digital, DiStaola says that Follett’s research indicates that 15% of students go without course materials. “To take a big chunk out of that,” he says, “comes down to how can you flip the bookstore model on its side.”

Barnes & Noble, which manages more than 630 college stores, may not be flipping, exactly, but it is trying to innovate how it reaches out to students, even handing out flip cameras on campus to keep its NookStudy in sync with the way kids study. “Our big mission,” says Max Roberts, president of the college division, “is to provide utility to the bookstore.” That has meant operating the only Starbucks Cafe in campus stores, as well as launching store-within-a-store technology boutiques in many locations. It’s also using social media to reach out to students. “The millennium student is different from students in the past,” says Roberts. In addition to bookstore Web sites with rental and technology discussions, the stores text students directly.

Although rental is a big category for Barnes & Noble stores and digital is up and coming, the retailer remains committed to print, both books and magazines. According to v-p Jade Roth, trade books continues to be strong, and some stores, like the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Mass., have actually increased their trade title count.