University News

Purchases dropping, bookstore battles online competition

By
Senior Staff Writer

With the rising popularity of websites such as Amazon and eBay, many college bookstores have seen increased competition in the textbook market. Students have turned to online retailers to find cheaper deals and to take advantage of features such as Amazon’s free two-day student shipping.

College bookstores, like Brown’s, have adapted to appeal to consumers.

According to Steven Souza, director of the Brown Bookstore, the purchase of textbooks at all university bookstores “has been declining,” in large part due to Internet competition.  Bookstore employees observe offers from Amazon to “adjust pricing to stay competitive with them,” Souza said. “We recognize that they are a serious competitor.”

A different mission

Explaining why online retailers have seen a rise in traffic and business, Souza said he believes there is a significant difference between the missions of these websites and the missions of university bookstores.

“You know the professor is expecting about 150 students, and you try to hit the right numbers (of books) so you can support it. Amazon is less worried about supporting this kind of stock,” Souza said. “Amazon has shareholders and has a responsibility to make a profit. We’re focused on the University and its students.”

Souza is content with the bookstore’s mission and explained that the bookstore is focused on making sure students get the right course material.

“If there’s anything wrong with the book, we’ll take it back,” Souza said. “If you’re out there buying a book from, say, a kid from Kansas, he doesn’t care about this.”

The mission resonates within the community — the bookstore saw popular support from students and faculty against the idea of making it independent from the University.

“There was a point in time that the University started looking for an independent bookstore, but the faculty, the students and everyone involved thought it would be a serious negative for the culture of Brown and the environment and academic freedoms that Brown values,” Souza said. Instead, there was large support to make the bookstore much more state-of-the-art, Souza said.

“Bookstores are generally profit-driven. We’re here to support the academic community,” he said.

Offering new services

Still, with the many purchasing options for books online, Charles Schmidt, director of public relations at the National Association of College Stores, said college stores need to become better retailers.

“For every dollar spent on a textbook, the college store makes a profit of only 6.3 cents,” he said. “College stores can combat competition by offering non-traditional services to students.”

Some of these services include offering dry cleaning for next-day pickup, tanning beds, selling tickets to local music or sports events and redesigning stores to include coffee shops or entertainment centers to draw students in, Schmidt said.

The Brown Bookstore, too, has looked to a number of features to stay appealing to consumers, including buying used and deeply discounted books. It has also introduced a textbook delivery service, though it does not account for a large amount of the store’s business, according to Souza.

Most people like to come into the bookstore to look around and see new merchandise, he said.  

The bookstore has also been sensitive to College Hill’s demographics by, for example, expanding its children’s book section.

“If there’s anyone still buying books, it’s moms and dads for the youngsters,” Souza said.

The bookstore has also focused on getting the books faculty want and staying attuned to what books are popular.

“We want to be a book lover’s bookstore. We want that when a new book comes out, we have it here,” Souza said.

The bookstore has also been actively collecting information on what customers want and observing purchase trends around major University events such as Commencement and Family Weekend, Souza said. For example, after watching demand trends, the bookstore began offering items for pets, including collars and leashes.

The technology section of the bookstore has also helped it stay competitive with online retailers, but it is a small-margin business for the bookstore, Souza said.

“I’m really proud of the team we have here. If you have questions or problems, if you need a repair, we have expertise right here,” he said.

Watching major trends in the textbook business, the bookstore has also decided to add a new service for students that will be available starting January: textbook rental for lower prices.

“There will be some titles available, some of the popular ones, that you will have the option to buy a new book, used book or rent a book. Renting is the least expensive,” Souza said.

Textbook rental programs have been a major trend for college stores this year as they try to stay competitive, growing from 300 stores last year to 1,500 this fall, Schmidt said.

While the book market has become highly competitive, the bookstore has seen great success in profit from apparel. The Brown bookstore does more apparel business than book business, Souza said.

“It’s the type of thing that we sell on the Internet to alumni and to visitors. For most colleges, that’s the way it is,” he said.

Beyond the margins

Barry Dejasu, a cashier who has been working at the bookstore for five years, said the apparel section is one of the most highly trafficked sections of the store.

“Incoming students frequent the section a lot — students looking to get gifts and things,” he said.

Another popular section of the bookstore is its cafe. But students hoping to use Flex Points at the bookstore’s cafe, which is managed by Blue State Coffee, might have to wait a little longer to use points to purchase its beverages and snacks.

“We brought the issue up, and apparently it is a dining services issue. I’m sure Blue State would be thrilled if that became a possibility,” Souza said.

Traffic at the cafe and the store has generally picked up since he started working there, Dejasu said.

This may be because of recent renovations, including the addition of large, open windows in the cafe area and free wireless Internet within the building.

Since the renovations, there has been more open space for people to see everything around the store, as opposed to when it was smaller and more cluttered, Dejasu said.

“There is more activity and draw to the store,” Dejasu said.

The bookstore is currently looking into offering exterior seating, but that is still early in the planning process, Souza said.

The future of the Brown Bookstore, along with many other college bookstores, will be shaped by how well the stores can reinvent themselves and adjust to competitive online retailers.

“I don’t think we need to do major changes. We need to continue to adjust based on what competition is doing, like going into the rental business, adjusting our prices to stay competitive and making sure we have the right books in the right quantities,” Souza said. “We just need to make sure that what we’re doing, we’re doing well.”     

Souza said the bookstore will continue to work on how it delivers its services and how it can improve its business.

“I think one of the things we’ve been actively working on is what we don’t have,” Souza said. “We will keep changing. As you come in, you will keep seeing new things.”