Five years ago, the National Association of College Stores issued a white paper that looked forward to what the state of the college store would be in 2015. The goal was to help member stores get ready for a changing retail and educational landscape, in which they would need to be more than just a bookstore. Fast forward to this year’s Camex (Campus Market Expo), held at Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta from February 20 to 24, for a glimpse of that future.
While college stores, with NACS’s support, have worked to reposition themselves by using the report’s three Cs—placing the customer (or student) first; adding capabilities, from e- and mobile-marketing to developing relationships with students; and preserving the core mission of the college store by offering curriculum-focused services—the changes continue to accelerate, particularly in textbook sales and delivery. At the same time, however, stores must continue to cope with declines in enrollment and pressure to generate more revenue, which has become harder with the shift to digital course materials.
Last week Chegg announced that it is exiting the physical textbook business and speeding its transition to digital only. As of May 1, Ingram Content Group will handle the sourcing and fulfillment for its books, and by year’s end Chegg will close its warehouse operations.
NACS deputy CEO and president of its IndiCo subsidiary Ed Schlichenmayer estimates that digital is 20% of college textbook sales, and that some publishers could be getting closer to the tipping point at which growth in digital sales offsets print declines. For Schlichenmayer, a shift to digital in college stores serving faculty and student needs is not necessarily a bad thing. “What it will do,” he says, “is allow college stores to focus on the genius-bar concept of a help desk [for students]. It allows them to do a better job with other merchandise. It could be a positive.”
That doesn’t mean that print is going away any time soon. Ingram’s not the only player to seek opportunities. At Camex, the nine-year-old Valore, which is a collection of online education brands, launched ValoreBooks Source under its ValoreBooks Merchant umbrella. Through the program, college stores will be able to buy books directly from students around the country and from unsold textbook inventory liquidated by other college stores and online merchants. Valore estimates that it will source over 1.9 million books in 2015.
No matter how course materials are delivered to students, Amazon is emerging as a potentially even bigger disrupter in campus retail. In August, the first college store to partner with Amazon, UC Davis, upped its year-long pilot (which was the first in the country) for another five years. Last month the mega-retailer opened its first staffed campus pick-up and drop-off location at Purdue University. The two began partnering six months ago with Purdue Student Store (purdue.amazon.com), a cobranded online store. UMass Amherst is next. It signed a five-year contract with Amazon to handle its textbook sales beginning fall 2015. An Amazon distribution center will replace UMass’s campus textbook annex; Follett will continue to operate a student store.
In a session on Amazon, journalist Brad Stone, author of The Everything Store and a self-described Amazon Prime “addict,” discussed Amazon Campus. “Historically,” he said, “[Amazon] hasn’t been that great a partnership company.” It didn’t do too well for Borders or Target, he reminded listeners. “You have to be comfortable letting the fox into the hen house,” said Stone, adding, “if you don’t have the finances to advance the future you want to see, it’s worth exploring a partnership.” Stone quoted Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on the mega-retailer’s strategic edge: “ ‘We don’t have a single big advantage. So we have to weave a rope of small advantages.’ ”
Although Amazon Campus may be one more rope, the mega-retailer has woven the strands carefully as it tries to secure a significant percentage of the college market, a $10 billion industry. In an educational session on the Amazon-UC Davis partnership with Jon Alexander, senior manager of Amazon Campus, and Jason Lorgan, director of UC Davis Stores, Alexander said that Amazon has been approached by a number of schools. It is currently targeting large schools, with 20,000 students or more, in states where it collects sales tax. Asked whether Amazon would be able to work with colleges with 2,000 students in the next five years, Alexander wouldn’t promise that it could shrink its operations so quickly.
But Amazon isn’t going after students just for textbook sales, according to Alexander. “Textbooks are a very small portion of Amazon’s revenue overall,” said Alexander. “Less than 5% of what our Student Prime members order are textbooks.” Instead, Amazon is looking to fill the need for underrepresented products on campus—as it does on the UC Davis campus, where the college store is responsible for textbook sales. A student spends, on average, $5,397 at Amazon for a school year, versus $1,376 in a traditional store. Lorgan said the partnership, which earned UC Davis $250,000 in its first year, wasn’t a particularly risky decision. UC Davis had already taken the risk several years ago when it became the first college store to offer its students price comparisons through Verba, which shows the school’s prices along with those of competitors, including Amazon. Lorgan said that UC Davis’s “win rate” for textbooks is 78% of students who go to the UC Davis website. Number two was always Amazon.
“Campus reaction,” said Lorgan, “has been overwhelmingly positive. Over 80% of what students are purchasing is not available in our store. It’s another revenue source. We look at Amazon as expanding our retail services. Textbooks are still 50% of our business. It’s just another option for our students.”
Since signing the new contract UC Davis has launched a new cobranded website (ucdavis.amazon.com). It already has self-service lockers on campus and will add more, along with an Amazon area in the middle of its flagship store and staffed pick-up and drop-off locations like the one at Purdue. As for Amazon marketing to UC Davis’s students, Lorgan doesn’t have a problem. “They were already marketing to our students,” he said. “They already have their email addresses.”
While some schools flirt with Amazon and others prefer leasing with Follett, Barnes & Noble, or Neebo, NACS has made a commitment to maintaining independence. Two years ago at Camex in Kansas City, it announced the launch of IndiCo to unite independent college stores. This year IndiCo, which has 700 members, remains an integral part of NACS’s strategic direction. Other priorities for the organization include positioning campus stores as academic resource centers and competitive retailers, advocating for the campus store industry, and enabling campus stores to play a leading role in the campus experience.
Applause greeted a report given at Camex by Todd Summer, outgoing president of the NACS board of trustees and director, campus stores division of Aztec Shops at San Diego State University, in which he said that IndiCo is having a “breakout year.” It brought one campus store back from lease, and at least one indie Camex attendee was also looking to take on a campus lease.
While IndiCo operates a buying club for independents, Connect2One, many of its other efforts focus on providing one-on-one consulting to college administrations evaluating their stores. As part of its efforts to create a stable environment for independents, earlier this year IndiCo invested in Redshelf, the digital marketplace and cloud reader. “Our focus is the independent bookstore market,” says COO Tom Scotty, former Macmillan Higher Education copresident.
Redshelf currently works with 400 publishers and 160 booksellers. Although cofounder and CEO Greg Fenton concedes that it’s “a miniscule” number, he notes that those stores represent 2.1 million students, or 10% of the college market. Going forward Redshelf plans to add more stores and is targeting trade houses with books used for adoptions, including Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. It also wants to be “the easy on-ramp” for small to midsized houses, according to Scott.
How much IndiCo’s and its partners efforts will strengthen independents remains to be seen. Anxiety led to a contentious discussion at the annual meeting about the composition of the IndiCo board. Some community college and small school stores felt left out. But NACS’s goal is to bring all college stores together. As outgoing president Summer wrote in a letter to membership, “We must stand strong together as college stores of all sizes and missions, and as vendors and institutions, to do our part to make the higher education community stronger and more valued by the public.”
Next year Camex returns to Houston from March 4 to 8.