Monday, May 2, 2011

Inventing the college store of the future

Campus Technology has an article this week about what happens to college stores if "dead tree tech" gets edged out by digital textbook alternatives. It is an interesting piece which echoes some recommendations we have made in the past -- and re-emphasizes that a shift to digital does not need to mean the end for physical stores. One of the early quotes in the piece -- from Isabella Hinds at Follett, captures this idea well. She notes:

The advent of this technology isn't going to eliminate the need for college bookstores. 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.

Hinds' comments reflect similar recommendations and reactions here at the National Association of College Stores (NACS), and can be found in our report, Defining the College Store of 2015, which is available to members.

It is about creating value and relevance for students and faculty in new ways. Two additional quotes from the article:

"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." -- K Gallagher, Bowker

"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." -- NACS

Indeed, we are already seeing a number of stores create "genius bar"-like concepts designed to help faculty and students understand their digital options and how to access them. Have a problem accessing a digital textbook, or don't understand how to access one publisher's content versus another (or why they are different)? Well, that is a role that the store will be able to help answer.

Given the early stages of many of these technologies, another challenge for students and faculty is matching content to devices. Stores will ultimately be the device and format agnostic providers, and will help students make sure the content they are buying is not only the right content for the course, but the right content for their device(s). It also means that stores must explore multiple approaches to delivering content -- print or digital. Yet another quote from the piece highlights this point:

"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.

"My words of wisdom to my colleagues are pretty simple. 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." -Jeff Levin, Varney's Bookstore

The article contains a number of interesting points and quotes -- from discussing the lingering preponderance of print, to print-on-demand (POD), to talking "tech rather than textbooks," building relationships with students, textbook rentals, open source textbooks, and redefining retail. In the end it is really all about adding value and reconsidering the retail role of the college store:

"If textbooks do go mostly digital, then the campus bookstore simply has to become more of a retail center. [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." -- Sue Riedman, NBC

All-in-all, a great piece that covers a lot of textbook and college store ground in a short space. It is great to see a positive and opportunity-focused piece on the college store industry. However, the piece does make one thing clear -- the business is ours to lose. College stores are uniquely well positioned to make it through a transition to new business models. However, success in doing so requires intention and willingness to experiment and move toward an as yet somewhat unclear future vision.

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