"This is a transformative time in our industry,” said Anthony Martin, outgoing board president of the National Association of College Stores (NACS) and director of the Houston Baptist University Bookstore, at the opening session of this year’s Camex (Campus Market Expo), held at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston from March 3 to 8. He pointed to shifts in higher education, including flat enrollment and concerns over textbook affordability and effectiveness, as well as Amazon’s ramping up of its campus program. “Disruption,” Martin added, “is always the start of progress.”
To deal with the transformation, NACS chose to make the focus of Camex managing change. Attendance at the show was down slightly from last year, drawing roughly 2,000 attendees from 1,000 campus stores; the event was co-located with the National Art Materials Association.
The NACS organization itself is in the midst of transition. CEO Brian Cartier will retire at the end of June, and Robert Walton, who is finishing his term as v-p for finance and administration of Vassar College, will take the top spot, the fourth person to do so in the association’s 93-year history.
The progress NACS board president Martin spoke of can’t come soon enough for some campus stores, given flat spending on course materials. In its most recent Student Watch Report, for 2015–2016, NACS reported that students spent $323, or $77 per course, on required course materials last fall. Combined with the costs of technology and supplies, student spending averaged $672, or a decrease of $25 from fall 2014.
Although four out of five students bought at least one of their course materials from the campus store, and over half rented materials from the campus store or its website, the competition for students’ dollars continues to heat up. Amazon, which had previously kept a low profile for its rental program, made its API available for the first time this year, according to Jared Pearlman, cofounder and COO of Verba Software, which offers a price-comparison tool that allows campus stores to have transparence. As a result, Amazon, which has been pushing all its products to students through Student Prime and its campus pickup locations, is starting to make inroads in rental, too. The amount of rentals students made through Amazon rose in fall 2015 compared to 2014, while purchases of course materials fell.
Though Follett, Barnes & Noble Education, and now Amazon look to capture an increasing share of college stores and their dollars, NACS subsidiary IndiCo, which was launched in 2013 to assist the association’s roughly 1,100 independent college stores, continues to bump up its efforts on behalf of independents. Last month, IndiCo released a customizable PowerPoint store-review template to help stores identify the key assets they deliver to their institution, which might include affordable textbooks, faculty support, and campus contributions. The goal is to facilitate stores’ communication with campus administrators about their value. By July, according to Ed Schlichenmayer, president and COO of IndiCo and deputy CEO of NACS, IndiCo will begin testing a data warehouse program with an eye to rolling it out in a bigger way later this year. IndiCo will collect and aggregate transactional store data, and stores will be able to compare how they are doing with other stores and share that data, much like trade stores use Above the Treeline.
In a session titled “The Future of Course Materials,” Andy Hines, lecturer/executive in residence of Future Studies at the University of Houston, had a message heard throughout the conference: “There are huge, turbulent, transformative changes in the next five years ahead.” But he reminded college store operators that change is not instantaneous. To determine how college stores should adapt, Hines said, “One of the things I’d be looking for is a massive decrease in the cost of education. How is our key customer going to respond?” He also suggested that booksellers look at higher education from the student perspective. What will students need in 2025? From their point of view, he said, you can’t separate learning from play, work, connecting, and participating in civic life.
Hines’s approach to looking at college stores as part of the higher education whole is similar to that of a recently released NACS white paper titled “Mapping the Learning Content Ecosystem” by Richard Katz and Ronald Yanosky. In it, the authors write, “College stores are undergoing the greatest changes in their long history.... The college store’s historical roles of assuming the on-time delivery of physical media and the operation of a book exchange carry decreasing weight.” Over the past seven years, student spending on course materials has declined.
Incoming CEO Walton expressed a similarly holistic view during an interview at Camex. “Right now we have the same challenges in the whole publishing and educational supply channel that you have in higher education. The whole educational model is under extreme change management and adaptation,” Walton said, adding, “I’m not concerned about college stores going away.”
Despite the challenges, Walton said, “I’m pretty optimistic. I think we’ve missed a lot of opportunities for college stores to take a broader role in the college. Although we tend to focus on the cost of textbooks, the reality is that there are a lot of skill sets and knowledge that stores have. I’m more concerned about what the business model is going to be and how we continue to add value for students and faculty. How do we negotiate with publishers for delivery of material? How do we license it, and how do we deliver it?”
The questions Walton posed have no easy answer for the association, as it prepares for change.