College Bookstores | Feature

Stepping up to the Genius Bar

As they reconsider their role on campus, college bookstores take inspiration from the Apple Store.

In "Can Tech Transcend the Textbook?" in the March issue of CT, we examined the current state of the e-textbook industry. In this follow-up, CT takes a look at what impact digital learning materials will have on the traditional college bookstore.

While no one agrees exactly when it will happen, expectations are high that the digital textbook market will eventually elbow print textbooks off the shelves. When that day finally comes, what happens to the campus bookstore? It's hard to imagine a college or university without one, but in a world where most students are downloading their textbooks, why maintain a bricks-and-mortar repository of dead-tree tech?


Illustration by Ryan Etter

"The advent of this technology isn't going to eliminate the need for college bookstores," insists Isabella Hinds, director of digital strategies and products for Follett Higher Education Group. "It's disruptive--or it will be, eventually--but the role of the bookstore is already evolving. The college bookstore of the future is likely to be a very different environment. The digital textbook is going to be one of a range of course-material offerings...delivered on a variety of devices. As these options proliferate, the expertise of the bookstore personnel will be much more important. They will become trusted advisers who can talk knowledgeably about the strengths and weaknesses of increasingly sophisticated and complex products."

In other words, the college bookstore of the future is going to look a lot like an Apple Store.

"As a matter of fact, that's an analogy we often use," Hinds says. "We talk about the importance of creating something that parallels the Apple Genius Bar. That model of expertise is one that really works. Students know that if they're in a bind they can walk across the campus and talk with somebody. It's another way that a physical location adds value for the end user."

Follett has a lot riding on this evolution. With 850 locations, the company is one of the country's largest operators of college bookstores, and one of the biggest wholesalers of used books for higher ed, with more than 100,000 titles in stock. Follett has also staked a big claim on the digital future of academic publishing with its own electronic textbook store, called CaféScribe.

A recently published report, Defining the College Store of 2015, from the National Association of College Stores (NACS) echoes Hinds' conclusions. According to the report, "College stores must earn students' 'love' by being relevant to their specific, evolving needs and expectations. Growing share of campus life must be a top priority for campus stores--followed by communicating this valuable role to key stakeholders."

Kelly Gallagher, vice president of publishing services at Bowker, a provider of global book information to publishers, booksellers, and libraries, also likes the Apple Store analogy.

"The stores that are becoming the resident experts on these educational technologies are gaining tremendous favor points with professors, administration, and students," Gallagher notes. "It's about maintaining a relationship with the customer and adding value in the form of expertise."

The Future of Print
At the same time, as CT discovered in our review of the e-textbook market, bookstores shouldn't plan to hurl their print products into the bin anytime soon.

In fact, says Gallagher, because today's students used primarily print-based materials during their K-12 years, print is still their preferred learning format. Recent surveys of college students by NACS and the Student Public Interest Research Groups confirm that argument: Three-quarters of the students surveyed said they'd rather use a paper-based textbook.

But even print is evolving technologically. "The economics of print-on-demand have yet to prove themselves," explains Gallagher, "but I think we're going to see manifestations of aggregated content--digital and paper content mash-ups. So, the bookstore of the future could be part Kinko's [now FedEx Office], part Apple Store, part textbook store."

That expanded analogy works for Jeff Levine, co-owner of Varney's Bookstores, which operates the campus bookstore for Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS. Founded in 1890, Varney's has been in the Levine family since the 1950s. Levine says he and his family have been watching the evolution of the college bookstore for a long time.

"There's absolutely no doubt that the long-term survival of the college bookstore will require some strategic adaptations," he says. "And you really just have to embrace the technology. We decided our best bet would be to invest in multiple approaches, to jump right into the deep end with both feet."

Varney's sells both print and digital textbooks, provides textbook-rental services, and even offers print-on-demand (POD). "We took a risk with the print-on-demand," Levine admits. "But we believe that we've woven together a strong enough fabric to last us through a lot of changes."

In 2009, Varney's partnered with Able Publishing, a 20-year-old printing operation, to form its POD business, Able Printing Co. The risk comes from the investment necessary to buy the commercial Xerox digital presses and supporting technologies and material. To mitigate the costs of that technology, Able Printing offers a range of printing services not related to the bookstore, including brochures, letterheads, menus, posters, and business cards.

"We keep our beast fed with other business when there's not a need to print a book," says Levine.

By providing all three alternatives, Levine says, Varney's has the ability to mix and match copyrighted material with custom products, and to print just what the customer needs.

"We feel that a lot of students, even when they do go digital, will want something printed," he ventures. "They've already got the licensed component, though there may be other permissions to secure, and we can help them with that. And if they want to put chapters from different books together, we can do that, too."

All of which fits with his family's vision of the college bookstore as an information provider. "We won't be called a bookstore in the future," Levine says. "We'll be called a 'chunk' store. We'll be selling chunks of information, and part of our role will be to deliver content in different forms and formats--some will be electronic; some will be print; some will be integrated combinations of the two."

Derek Peterson, director of the South Dakota State University Bookstore, is also firmly convinced that college bookstores will have to assume a new role as tech-support and content experts. "When you sell a textbook, you're basically done with that student until you see them again at the end of the semester," he says. "I think the college bookstore of the future is going to be an organization that's better at communicating, better at staying in contact with customers, better at building long-term relationships."

To help meet this goal, the SDSU Bookstore is undergoing an extensive renovation that will include space for regular tech-support events. "Maybe every Monday afternoon we offer an opportunity for students to come in for an hour and a half to discuss--and even try out--some new apps we've found," explains Peterson. "Believe me, the students are a lot more excited to come into my store and talk technology than they are textbooks."

An Emphasis on Retail
But the makeover is also designed to allow the bookstore to move more aggressively into retail sales. A new 500-square-foot technology center will sell computers, MP3 players, headphones, and software, and there will be an increasing focus on "soft goods," such as sweatshirts, T-shirts, and jackets.

Sue Riedman, VP of corporate communications at the Nebraska Book Co. (NBC), another large operator of college bookstores, completely understands why the SDSU bookstore would shift to more of a retail focus.

"If textbooks do go mostly digital, then the campus bookstore simply has to become more of a retail center," Riedman says, pointing out that the college bookstore is no longer the place "where you have to go to get everything. Students have more choices now. There's local competition, as well as the internet. But we're convinced that there's still a lot of value to the college bookstore. Students aren't paying for shipping charges, returns are easier, and they get help to make sure they're buying the correct book. In the end, it's about adding value."

NBC operates and manages more than 280 college bookstores nationwide. The company also sells used textbooks, and about three years ago began providing its stores with the ability to sell electronic textbooks via a service it established with CourseSmart called Jumpbooks. Students actually purchase Jumpbooks titles at a local bookstore, where they receive a code for the download. To read the purchased textbooks, students also have to download either the CourseSmart Reader or the VitalSource Bookshelf. Only time will tell whether such a multistep process can work in this era of instant downloads.

Growth of Textbook Rentals
The good news for college bookstores grappling with all these changes is that the transition to digital has been slowed by the warp-speed growth of an intervening trend: textbook rentals.

"According to our research," says Riedman, "an average new textbook sells for about $75. You can rent that textbook new for about $44. A digital book on average costs $45. It's not necessarily more cost-effective to use an e-textbook."

SDSU's Peterson agrees: "We offer e-books--a few hundred titles--but the demand isn't there yet. I think it's pretty clear that the growth of textbook rentals is part of the reason for that. Everyone in the industry knows that it's just a detour on the road to digital, but it's a significant one. Right now, our kids have transferred heavily to textbook rental, but the next step is going to be from rental to e-book."

Riedman confirms that textbook rentals represent an enormous change in the way NBC stores do business. "In more than half of our NBC stores, we're now renting every textbook that's available in the store," she says. "This is one of the more dramatic ways the college bookstore is morphing to accommodate changes in the market."

The Role of Open Content
And then there's open source--or in this case, open source educational content--which college bookstores have only just begun to deal with. Richard Baraniuk, professor of engineering at Rice University (TX) and founder of Connexions, a popular open education site, sees the college bookstore of tomorrow as essentially a manager of processes and an aggregator of textbook and course materials from open-licensed content.

"Think of it as content-curation services," he says. "There's an opportunity for the campus bookstore to understand the issues, to help guide the instructor through building a legal, open textbook and providing services around that, and curating it over time, making sure things are up to date, and taking student feedback."

Josh Baron, director of academic technology and e-learning at Marist College in New York, believes open content will prove to be an even more disruptive technology than digital textbooks, and that college bookstores are uniquely positioned to play a key role in its evolution.

"I think the campus bookstore is going to continue in its role as distributor of instructional content, but the way that content is delivered is going to be varied," Baron says. "The days of making all of your money from content are going away. The future is going to be about organizing that content, adding value to that content, and potentially wrapping services around that content. I think the campus bookstore would be pretty well positioned to provide those types of services. It's a known entity on campus--it already has relationships with students, faculty, and administrators."

While the future of the campus bookstore may be far from clear, it will undoubtedly be complicated. The bookstore of tomorrow must be prepared to juggle open source content, e-textbooks, tech support, and on-demand printing, even as it sells mascot-emblazoned mugs and sweaters. Even so, such a future is infinitely preferable to that of consumer giants like Borders.

"My words of wisdom to my colleagues are pretty simple," sums up Levine from Varney's Bookstores. "You can't do all this in a tepid fashion--you have to commit all the way. You have to invest in multiple approaches to hedge your bets on the shifting winds of the technology. And monitor your results. The evolution of this thing we call a bookstore isn't over."

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