As the traditional financial model for college bookstores slowly flunks out, several college booksellers offered concrete suggestions about the store of the future at last week's National Association of College Stores panel called "The Store of 2020."

For Kathleen Grace, director of Swarthmore College Bookstore in Pennsylvania, the "$6.77 billion question" concerns the textbook/ course materials market. In the future, materials will need "validation," which may not come from publishers. Students are accustomed to receiving a lot for free, which obviously creates challenges, and, she said, "digitization has not yet led to flexibility in the delivery of course materials," which should be customized to individual students' learning styles and needs. "Some students like print," but should printed material be short, long or medium length? Should digital material go onto DVDs, memory sticks or handheld devices? Will students want online supplements?

Allowing students choices will make them satisfied customers, she continued. In the bookstore of the future, "students will get only what they pay for and pay for only what they get."

William Simpson, president and general manager of the UConn Co-op at Storrs, Conn., offered the soothing observation that "dealing with the future is not rocket science. It will become clearer as it becomes closer."

In the typical college store of 2020, he continued, "innovation will be a key component," and booksellers will need to take risks in unforeseen ways. Moreover, store partnerships with students, faculty, administration and alumni will change. "We will have to build relationships in the same way a lawyer, doctor or other professional does," he said. "We will have clients, not customers."

Ken Bowers, who last month moved from the University of California at Santa Barbara to become director of stores at Stanford University, proposed that the bookstore of the future will be a "living room for the campus," so that students would want to go there to do more than just buy texts.

UConn's Simpson noted that demographic changes in the population will mean that after 2009, the traditional college-age group will continue to grow but be smaller proportionate to the rest of the population and will vary greatly by state. Enrollment will continue to grow, but more slowly.

The store of the future might require fewer employees because of the reduction in textbooks. Clearly the staff will be doing different jobs. Simpson predicted that employees will be "multitasking, fast thinking, tolerant of diversity, creative, challenge authority and require employers to earn their respect."

Economics 101

The store of the future will face financial pressures, speakers agreed. The current economies of scale that come with selling a thousand texts for one course will erode when there are six types of delivery systems. Likewise, the costs of keeping Web sites current, exciting and secure will rise. Worst perhaps, as Gary Shapiro, senior v-p for intellectual properties at Follett, noted, "We don't pay enough money to keep good people in the industry."

At the same time, Web competition is blossoming because it's so easy to set up sites selling books, particularly faculty copies. "Hundreds are doing it; thousands are thinking about it," Shapiro said.

Students and even states will become competitors. "Connecticut," Simpson said, "is toying with the idea of getting into the online swap business." Stores also may find new models like course material rentals or buybacks in advance.

Bruce Barnard, director of campus services and bookstore at Colby College, Waterville, Maine, emphasized that "turning of inventory will be a huge benchmark" for the store of the future and noted that Forever 21, a teen girls' clothing store competing with the Gap and H&M, turns inventory weekly, a figure that proved "gasp-worthy" to the audience.

Ken Bowers of Stanford described one proposal that could help pricing issues: making the cost of books part of tuition. This would guarantee sales and likely alleviate student resentment about text costs.

Funding will become ever more of an issue as money in state budgets for higher education continues to decline, and financial aid will probably fall in total dollars. These two factors will put pressure on stores because students' financial resources will be squeezed.

Books by the Slice

Follett's Shapiro noted with concern that at a typical community college, texts can cost more than courses. Shapiro emphasized that technology opens students to "alternative sources of content" and has led the company to investigate the University of Phoenix model, which is entirely online and geared to students' varying speeds, needs and interests. Students will have increasing options in products—printed, digital, audio—and where to buy them—campus, off campus or online. Eventually, booksellers will sell books "by the slice."

Shapiro recommended booksellers who don't already should sell high-tech products, particularly computers, peripherals and iPods, which should help "keep customers for life." Bowers wondered why course material couldn't be downloaded onto nearly ubiquitous iPods. He envisions, he said, "students listening to [course materials] as they jog or sip Starbucks."

College booksellers have "terrific brands" in the name of the store and should think of the campus as the brand. Ken Bowers noted that UCSB had the store act as its brand manager.

General Retail Cheat Sheets

Barnard advised booksellers to track innovations at global businesses. One example, which might address students' aversion to waiting on lines, particularly during rush, is Home Depot's experiments with RFID, which allows checkout to take place wirelessly by debiting the products being bought from the customer's Home Depot card (almost like an electronic highway pass).

Stores of the future should emphasize renewable and recycled resources, Barnard stated, adding that Nike, not known for environmentally friendly policies, will soon be introducing a line of recycled fitness apparel for women.

"Pop-up retail," consisting of "short-term storefronts more for public relations and promotion than sales," is catching on in general retail and could be adapted by college bookstores. One example Barnard mentioned: Target's barge store that docked in New York City during the 2003 holiday season.

Several speakers emphasized that college bookstores should energetically try to change students' "price and rip-off image" of them, as Follett's Gary Shapiro described it. "If we don't get over this, we won't wow them."