The message from the Big Easy, where the National Association of College Stores annual meeting and CAMEX trade show was held last month, is that college booksellers should stay jazzed up, despite having won a major battle against online text retailers.

Several looming challenges are as significant as the one posed by online text retailers: most important, the digital delivery of texts as well as customers who have higher expectations and are ever more savvy—and who have alternatives to the college bookstore unimaginable a few years ago.

As NACS's outgoing president David Holcomb, Clackamas Community College, Oregon City, Ore., said in opening remarks in New Orleans: "It's clear that the landscape in which college bookstores do business is changing." His observation that "only last year we wondered about the effect of online retailers on our bookstores" drew laughter from the crowd, which since the last NACS-CAMEX meeting has seen the collapse of and the diminution of VarsityBooks.

Holcomb called the booksellers themselves "the real heroes" for making changes and improving customer service in ways that allowed them successfully to "defend your space against online stores."

But self-congratulation lasted just a moment. Holcomb noted that almost all college students now have online access—98% according to one survey, up 14% from just a year ago. And those students now spend two days more a month online than they did a year ago.

That reality, combined with the gradual development of digital delivery, means that college stores "need to redefine their roles." The college store is "the best aggregator" for course materials on campuses today, Holcomb continued, but as with the threat from online retailers, "it's our space to lose."

He suggested that college retailers need to make strong alliances with publishers, who are beginning to experiment with digital delivery. On an organizational level, NACS is pursuing that goal by working more closely with the Association of American Publishers.

Appropriately, some of the educational sessions at NACS focused on digital delivery, distance learning, e-commerce and understanding the needs and interests of students.

Altogether, the gathering drew some 8,000 people. The largest ever CAMEX featured 1,400 booths. And the popular book and author breakfast on Monday morning, which featured Rick Bragg, Bebe Moore Campbell, Roy Blount Jr. and Sister Helen Prejean, was perhaps the most simultaneously heartfelt and humorous ever.

Digital Determination

Many speakers emphasized that digital delivery will be a major force in textbook sales sooner than most people believe and that college stores still have time to become an integral part of the process. As Roberta Glaser of Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting) said at a seminar called "Digital Course Materials and the College Store," "There is more hype about Stephen King and consumer e-books, but in four months, that will shift as the new semester starts and there are more e-texts available." She added that stores will need "new capabilities" to deal with e-texts, but that they can "play a value-added role in digital delivery."

For his part, Stephen Hochheiser, director of campus marketing at Thomson Learning, said at a seminar called "E-Commerce and Your College Store," "E-commerce is a fact of life. Your mindset should be 'I need to figure out how to exploit this.' " He recommended that college booksellers become "the course material experts" and "the guide on campus." They should also create or be closely involved in the creation and running of campus portals. He noted: "You've always been the portal, but we never called it that."

College booksellers are important to publishers because they are "the local authority," Hochheiser continued. "You know what the professor said. You have the records. We don't have the records."

Hochheiser emphasized that there will be a "virtual inventory of academic materials in addition to print materials." (A related opportunity for stores, according to Hochheiser, is using print on demand technology, which can be regional distribution centers for publishers.) The main issues holding up growth in e-texts for publishers involve access and security. For example, broadband is needed on both ends to download with reasonable speed, and Napster-like copying is every publisher's greatest fear.

Speakers noted that digitization is nothing new in the textbook business. In the last decade, for example, content became digitized and allowed for the development of course packs and custom publishing. In five years, because of wireless development, "content will be able to go anywhere," Glaser predicted. In addition, development of lighter, more flexible reading devices will allow students to access e-texts anywhere.

Glaser outlined major "intermediary" companies in the field—who are acting like R&D departments for publishers—such as Questia, ebrary, NetLibrary, Versaware, Blackboard,,, WizeUp, MetaText, Rovia and Open Mind. Glaser noted that while Open Mind is offering a direct service between professors and students, "publishers provide a valuable function," and will have a role.

Glaser called this an "experimental phase," with many textbook publishers experimenting in e-format with between 10 and 50 texts. A few are also selling direct, but in a limited way. The new medium has not yet been used creatively, she continued. Many projects have consisted essentially of putting print text on screen.

One major exception is a project mentioned at several seminars: VitalBook, a DVD that is being sold to students at seven dental school and contains more than 100 health science texts licensed from publishers. Some of the material is customized for the schools. Students receive updated DVDs each semester. For all practical purposes, every text they need for dental school is contained on the DVD.

Savvy Students

Several speakers stated that future college students will be even more demanding and accustomed to a range of choices than current students, who themselves are much more marketing and computer savvy than students of just a decade ago. To stay successful, stores will have to have to meet those ever more challenging needs.

Karen Hernandez, director of auxiliary services at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, offered an example of the new approach, saying, "Students place a lot of comparative value on goods and services. If they go to a Web site and don't see what they want, they don't go back." Last year, her store had online sales of $181,364—an average of $142.91 per student, slightly higher than the NACS average of $135. She noted that the store receives orders from around the country and warned, "If we don't fulfill the needs of our students, they'll go elsewhere."

Hernandez noted a positive aspect of online ordering as it affects the pace of work in stores. Since the majority of the store's online orders come in between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., booksellers fill them the next day and don't have to deal with "students in their face."

Several speakers mentioned statistics showing that a majority of students are women, and more than 40% are part timers and over the age of 25. As Hernandez commented: "Students are older, more savvy and more mobile [than their predecessors]. Their entire world is not necessarily college. College is being fit into their life. You're not the center of their world anymore."

Lots of teens love eBay, which, Hernandez said, indicates a new kind of consumer attitude: "They want it now and want it for what they're willing to pay for it," she said.

Stephen Hochheiser added that teens "are used to being catered to," and they've become accustomed to this because national consumer companies have done so. As a result, Hochheiser continued, students want a kind of "mass customization." They "want you to come to them and have what they expect to see."

Hochheiser also emphasized the range of choices the online world offers students. "Now there's no need for them to drive somewhere else for an alternative to your store," he said. All they have to do is "press a key at 1 a.m. in their dorm room."

Hernandez pointed out, too, that students want a kind of online instant gratification. To cater to this, she suggested online booksellers immediately e-mail a thank you for each order.

What to Do?

Several speakers recommended stores begin to experiment with digital course material and to imagine it from the students' and professors' perspectives. As Accenture's Glaser said, "Solicit feedback from professors and students about how to solve their problems."

Other recommendations included looking for partners and creating alliances—work with publishers and get involved in pilot projects. College booksellers should also go to Web sites popular among teens and visit other stores' sites for ideas.

One keynote speaker, Roger Blackwell, president of Blackwell Associates and author of From Mind to Market (HarperBusiness), told booksellers to "listen to your customers. They'll tell you where to go."

He pointed out that most students access the Internet through their campus portal. "The best institutions see .edu as a potential gold mine," he commented, advising college booksellers to become involved in those sites.

Like other speakers, Blackwell emphasized that "multichannel retailing" is the wave of the future. With few exceptions, he said, e-commerce-only Web sites are not viable; as he put it, "Clicks and order doesn't work." In fact, the Web "will not replace retailing, it will enhance retailing." Consumers, particularly college students, will want to have it all. "Click, call, visit" encompasses a store's Web site, 800 number and bricks-and-mortar store. "You need blended strategies that include the best of bricks-and-mortar and e commerce," he emphasized.

He pointed to Victoria's Secret successful fashion show from Cannes on its Web site, which was heavily promoted last year on television. It was so successful that the day after the fashion show, Victoria's Secrets stores drew their second highest turnout of 2000.

Another "convergence" Web site success, according to Blackwell:, which doesn't not so much aim to sell as "have fun."

Another keynote speaker, Mark McCormick, founder and head of IMG, the international sports marketing and representation agency, emphasized that in the Internet Age, "the key is to use technology and not be used by it."

In the sports world, Web technology will allow viewers to watch, for example, any part of the Olympics they're interested in, without having to rely only on NBC's limited coverage. At the same time, however, technology sometimes takes precedence over the human touch. For example, "e-mail's fantastic," but McCormick finds it "disrespectful for employers to e-mail employees when they should talk face to face and build a team."

Again and again, he emphasized the human touch: several times he encouraged the booksellers to "face people, interact with them, relate with them." Furthermore, "whether selling products, services or yourself," McCormick stated, "use common sense and sensitivity in dealing with people.... Understanding people and how they work is critical: try to be an aggressive listener and an aggressive observer."

Among the examples he gave, he noted that he had been trained as a lawyer and taught that "a contract is a contract, a deal is a deal." Yet he has found that if a situation has changed and he wants to keep doing business with a company, "I let them out of the contract and they never forget it. I've gotten much more out of that than holding them to a contract."

Next Year in L.A.

Next year's NACS conference and CAMEX show will be in Los Angeles February 20—24, the first NACS-CAMEX event to reflect the association's desire to hold the show earlier in the year than its traditional April date and in conjunction with Connect2One, College Bookstores of America and Founders Bookstore Services.