As students cut costs by buying books from cheaper online retailers or by downloading e-textbooks, campus bookstores sell fewer and fewer textbooks. That's triggering an identity crisis for one of the oldest institutions on campus and leading some college officials to ask: If textbooks go digital, does the campus even need a bookstore?
"Book sales are declining—they're down tremendously this year," says DeAnn Hazey, executive director of the National Association of College Stores Foundation. "The college stores have to find other ways and other categories" to make money, she says, "otherwise they won't survive."
So bookstores at many colleges are preparing for a bookless future with new services they hope will keep students coming: performance spaces for in-store concerts, multimedia stations for printing digital photos, and even dry cleaning. Most store managers I talked with hoped to drop the word "book" from the sign out front.
"I say I'm a buggy-whip salesman," quipped Liz Hale, manager of bookstore services at Bellingham Technical College, in Washington, where she has been advocating changes in the campus store. "I personally believe that the textbook in its current incarnation is as obsolete as buggy whips that people used to steer when we had horses and carriages."
Buggy whips aren't on the shelves, but walking into many campus bookstores does feel like stepping back in time. Many are run directly by the nonprofit colleges they serve, so they've had little financial pressure to make the cosmetic improvements in lighting and shelving that chain retailers have. Some look like relics as a result.
But their success has never been measured purely in dollars. The main mission of most campus bookstores has been to give students a convenient source of textbooks. For generations that role went unchallenged.
College Bookstores Get a Makeover
As sales of printed textbooks decline, campus stores are considering new services. Here are some:
Now students have many options for buying those old-fashioned textbooks, thanks mainly to online retailers like Amazon.com and Half.com, which can ship textbooks on even the most obscure topics overnight. And some publishers now sell cheaper electronic versions of their textbooks, either through their own Web sites or through CourseSmart, a commercial service supported by major textbook publishers. Or students buy and sell used textbooks on Craigslist or other classified-ad sites.
The trick for college stores, then, is to find a place for themselves in the digital landscape that both brings in paying customers and convinces college leaders that their services are essential.
That's the challenge issued in a report from the National Association of College Stores, called "Defining the College Store of 2015." It mixes suggestions for new services with advice on how to capture hearts and minds on campus. "College stores must earn students' 'love' by being relevant to their specific, evolving needs and expectations," the report says. "Growing share of campus life must be a top priority for campus stores—followed by communicating this valuable role to key stakeholders."
For many stores, that means building their own technology services—seeking to become sales hubs for digital textbooks or buying print-on-demand machines in the hope that some students will always want printed textbooks. Book-rental programs are growing as well. Just last week, the college-store association announced that 11 college bookstores had received nearly $9-million in federal grants to test rental programs.
Soon walking into a college bookstore might not feel like a trip down memory lane.
The Downside of Digital
For one futuristic vision of the college bookstore, visit the University of Kansas. Its bookstore sports a bright, modern look and can print its own books. It was the first to join a pilot project with Hewlett-Packard to test print-on-demand machines in college stores. That lets KU Bookstores dodge the riskiest part of its business—ordering loads of printed textbooks in advance and hoping that students buy their required materials on campus. The store has put its new printing facilities on display, letting curious students see the process.
"It's kind of like watching a Krispy Kreme doughnut being made. It's fascinating," says Estella McCollum, director of KU Bookstores. The store's machine can print a book in about 10 minutes, and students often remark that the resulting tomes are still warm when they buy them.
The on-demand approach can mean noticeable savings for students. Ms. McCollum says she recently reduced the price of one psychology textbook by about $37 per copy with the new equipment, and she can print collections of articles for classes, often called course packs, as well. Plenty of college stores sell course packs, she says, but most have to contract out the actual printing. Her store has cut out the middleman.
Sales of e-textbooks have recently risen, and some see that as a sign that digital will soon replace print. But Ms. McCollum is convinced that the trend is driven by price rather than students' desire to give up physical books. "What I hear more than 'I want digital' is 'I want a better price,'" she says.
And when it comes to price, college bookstores suffer a disadvantage, according to many store managers. After all, textbooks have become synonymous with high prices, scorned by students, professors, and legislators as their costs have risen far faster than inflation. And since college bookstores have been Textbook Central, many students assume that prices on everything there will be high.
So the Kansas store recently added a price-comparison tool to its Web site. Students click the courses they're taking from a menu, and the site pulls up a list of required textbooks and shows what each title would cost in the campus bookstore, on Web retailers like Amazon.com, or from a textbook-rental service that the university recently formed a partnership with. The comparison tool was made by Verba Inc., a company started by recent Harvard University graduates who are working with college bookstores around the country.
In more than 80 percent of cases, students who tried the comparison tool chose to buy a new or used textbook at the traditional bookstore, says Ms. McCollum. And when students clicked through to the Amazon.com link, the bookstore at least made a small commission for sending them. "We are building that trust with the customer that we're trying to provide a service that is relevant to them," she told me.
The Dreaded B-Word
If college bookstores survive, something else is likely to change: their names. Some store managers told me they hope to call their places of business "spirit shops" or "campus stores." Anything that doesn't used the dreaded B-word.
Bookstores at colleges already make far more profit on college-themed merchandise and on food and other convenience-store fare than on books. Textbooks may have high prices, but store managers say they see little of that money.
"We get a lot of bad press—the mean old nasty money-grubbing bookstore," says Ms. Hale, of Bellingham Technical College. "But the margin on textbooks is one of the lowest margins around." In terms of profit margin, she does better selling chips.
At Bellingham, all the bookstore has to do is break even—by Washington state law, college stores must be self-sustaining. But some students have begun using the store as a lending library of sorts, buying a textbook there when a course begins and then returning the book as soon as a cheaper copy arrives from Amazon.com. "I can't afford to be that lending library," Ms. Hale says. So she is tightening her return policy, though that was one selling point of the store in the first place.
Many colleges try to make money from their bookstores, contracting them out to Barnes & Noble, Follett, or other chains. Those companies have bet heavily on digital textbooks in recent years.
This summer, for instance, Barnes & Noble unveiled NOOKstudy, its own software for displaying e-textbooks, in partnership with many major publishers. It also added the ability to sell electronic textbooks directly via its Web site. Barnes & Noble even makes its own e-book reading device, the Nook.
"Before that we sold e-textbooks in the store, but we had never sold them online," says Jade Ross, vice president for books and digital storage at Barnes & Noble. "We saw our August and September e-textbook sales exceed all expectations."
Follett offers a competing platform for e-textbooks, called CaféScribe; company officials did not return calls for this article.
If those high-tech gambles pay off, a bookstore chain could emerge as the de facto standard for online textbooks, driving more colleges to switch to its stores. At least that's the chains' hope. But the National Association of College Stores is building its own software to deliver e-textbooks, so that nonprofit stores can at least have the virtual shelving if they move to cyberspace.
In the end, though, someone else may end up winning the role of course-materials broker. Perhaps the college library will take over, buying licenses for online textbooks. Or colleges will charge students a course-materials fee that will go to buy e-textbooks, as a few colleges are now trying.
College bookstores occupy prime real estate on campus and have huge advantages, like access to data on students and the ability to accept campus debit cards, often paid for by parents. So what should they sell now?