At the 2013 Campus Market Expo (CAMEX) in Kansas City, Mo., the National Association of College Stores (NACS) announced the launch of IndiCo, a new subsidiary that will assist its 1,450 independent stores. The independent wing of NACS began with 600 stores—members of the country’s largest collegiate buying group, Connect2One, which NACS acquired from the Nebraska Book Company in mid-April. At the start of the 2014 CAMEX in Dallas last week, IndiCo had an announcement of its own: it’s launching the Technology Partnership Program, a program designed to help independent college stores test new technology.

“In general, we’re starting to feel more confident,” said Ed Schlichenmayer, IndiCo’s president and NACS deputy CEO, speaking about the first year of the subsidiary, which, like the American Booksellers Association, advocates for independent stores. For Schlichenmayer, the purpose behind the technology program is “putting college stores at the heart of digital content delivery. [Its] primary goal is to strengthen the technological competitiveness of our independent college stores as they continue to work with faculty and students to integrate digital materials into course curricula and provide students with the best, most up-to-date learning experiences possible.”

The Technology Partnership Program, which is being developed by Ashley Gordon, v-p of content and new media at IndiCo, builds on the work of the subsidiary’s predecessor, NACS Media Solutions (NMS), which supported technology and content solutions to make college stores a more effective channel for digital content. While NMS served as NACS’s R&D group and ran small pilot programs with a handful of college stores, Gordon would like to see the new program provide development and execution for all IndiCo stores.

The first eight companies to sign up for IndiCo’s technology program will interact with college stores through a series of weekly webinars beginning March 25. Among the first group are three educational publishers—Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill Education, and Cengage Learning. The other five participants are Montezuma Publishing, which develops custom course readers and is based at San Diego (Calif.) State University; SIPX, an online content-rights-licensing service developed by Stanford University; Kortext, a U.K.-based digital textbook provider that is entering the U.S. marketplace; Virdocs/Redshelf, a custom course-materials creation platform and digital marketplace; and StudySoup, which creates and distributes custom texts.

Gordon understands that many college store personnel are anxious about the digital space, particularly since no one knows how the ongoing transition will ultimately affect stores—one reason why IndiCo has no current plans to introduce its own digital platform. “We are telling the stores to embrace change, to experiment—it’s okay to get it wrong,” said Gordon. “We’re doing the same thing.” She sees the technology program as offering stores the step-by-step building blocks they need to get started. A second round of tech companies participating in the program will be introduced in the fall.

IndiCo’s other initiatives are meant to emphasize the importance of independent stores to the college community. Since February, it has been working on a project to establish benchmarks that it hopes store managers can take to school administrators to show the value of independent college stores.

A third initiative grew out of last fall’s National Association of Campus Auxiliary Services (NACAS) show, during which several administrators went to the NACS booth to find out about the resources the association offers to help determine how to evaluate independently-run college stores compared to the contract management services provided by Follett, Barnes & Noble, and Nebraska Book Company. As a result, IndiCo is planning to have a larger presence at both the NACAS and the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) gatherings in the future. At the exhibitions, Schlichenmayer wants to make the case that the independent store channel is on par with management companies and to show administrators the technology that independent stores can provide in collaboration with their business partners. “In some cases,” he said, “the independent store offers technology that is superior” to that of management operators, “and in almost all cases, [it offers] a better experience for students.”

As part of its outreach to administrators, IndiCo is also developing consulting services, which should be available in September; the aim is to work with school officials interested in bringing back independent college stores when their leases with contract managed stores run out. At present, about 40 stores typically transition to contract management each year.

Although much of IndiCo’s first year has been spent doing outreach to NACS stores and vendors, Schlichenmayer believes that a year from now, “independent stores will understand that we are really in their camp.” But, he noted, digital and contract management aren’t the only problems confronting members. “From a NACS perspective,” he said, “there are other barbarians at the gate: campus IT, Blackboard [an educational technology company], and others that are trying to make a case that you don’t need a bookstore anymore.”