After winning a five-year contract to create an online store and a staffed kiosk for the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in August, eCampus.com continues to build a niche as a virtual campus retailer. The UWM program works much like ones that Amazon has begun rolling out on other campuses, including Purdue and UMass Amherst in which Amazon operates an online store and staffs locations for students to pick up books and other materials. In addition to the UWM partnership, eCampus.com has a staffed kiosk at National Louis University and unstaffed kiosks at 20 other colleges. It also operates 150 virtual school stores, and it sells digital textbooks directly to students; it also sells and rents physical textbooks. Altogether, the privately held company generates close to $100 million in revenue, according to president and CEO Matt Montgomery.
Founded by former Kentucky governor Wallace Wilkinson with $90 million from investors, eCampus.com initially seemed to be on a trajectory for rapid growth, taking in $10 million in revenue in 1999, its first year. “We all thought we were going to get dot-com rich,” said Montgomery, who joined eCampus.com after serving as a v-p at Thomson Learning (now Cengage). But in 2001, a year after the dot-com bubble burst, Wilkinson was forced into personal bankruptcy. Like his other businesses—including Wallace’s Bookstores, which managed 91 bookstores on 60 college campuses, and Wallace’s Book Co., one of the country’s largest textbook wholesalers—eCampus.com went into Chapter 11. During that turbulent time, eCampus.com continued to operate. “We never went off the air. The only thing we did was become more profitable,” Montgomery said. Montgomery is one of a group of investors who purchased the company for $2.5 million in 2001.
Financial caution may have been necessary when eCampus.com was forced to remake itself after it emerged from bankruptcy—in the process becoming one of the first companies to rent textbooks online in 2007—but Montgomery is bullish now that eCampus.com provides virtual textbooks. “Physical stores are going to go the way of Blockbuster,” said Montgomery, referring to the defunct chain of video rental stores. “Textbooks are an inefficient method inside the bookstore. You have a week in August and a week in January. A book is a commodity. You don’t need to carry it.”
For Montgomery, eCampus.com offers the best of bricks-and-mortar and online stores, by getting students the books they need without taking up a lot of campus space and without paying a commission back to the college, as a physical campus store would. He calculates that the colleges that have come to eCampus.com to replace textbooks in their bricks-and-mortar stores for a virtual bookstore program had a significant decline in sales before moving to eCampus.com. UWM, for example, saw its sales per square foot decline 15.1% in fiscal 2014, relative to fiscal 2010; enrollment decreased 7.2%. Based on data collected by the National Association of College Stores, sales at bricks-and-mortar stores have declined over the same time period. Sales fell 4.2% in the 2013–14 school year from the prior year, after falling 2.8%, and 3.3%, in the 2012–13 and 2011–12 school years, respectively, said NACS spokesperson Laura Massie.
Montgomery is well aware of the difficulties of running a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Since 2002, eCampus.com has operated a warehouse bookstore in Lexington, Ky., which serves students at colleges in the area such as University of Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University, with textbooks and spirit wear (clothing with school logos, etc). From 2005 through 2014, Montgomery said, eCampus.com also had multiple locations at the University of Kentucky, which served as a “learning lab,” and one at Morehead State University from 2001 to 2013. Montgomery views the staffed kiosks that eCampus.com is now experimenting with less as bookstores than as “living billboards.”
Although eCampus.com’s focus is on textbooks, it has an affiliate program with 300 other types of vendors. Montgomery also holds out the possibility of adding trade titles again, when the company’s volume increases. For now, he said that it’s easier to be more competitive on textbooks, which have fixed pricing and present an even playing field. “We don’t care if we sell it print or digital,” he added. On the high school side, Montgomery sees more traction for digital. In 2013, eCampus.com launched eTechCampus, which is primarily focused on the digital learning goals and needs of teachers and schools for grades K–12. This fall eTech will move into a larger facility and add 45 jobs.