College bookstores adapting to changing times with additional services
By Kate Wilcox and Kari Andren
Published: Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
With the smells of freshly brewed Starbucks coffee and new carpet in the air, customers inside the renovated University of Pittsburgh bookstore file past rows of glasswork by local artisans and clustered coffee tables and chairs.
Sure, there are books in the store, but they're not enough to keep students coming back these days, according to college bookstore operators across the nation. They are retooling their offerings to deal with market changes that have broken their one-time monopoly on textbook sales.
The proliferation of online booksellers, increased use of technology in the classroom and ramped-up demands from cost-conscious students have forced the campus stores to sell a lot more than books.
Many have added cosmetics kiosks, Apple computer vendors, handbags and online book services.
“Textbooks are important, but so are a lot of other things, like technology,” said Pitt's Book Center director Debra Fyock.
‘Students want stuff'
Fyock's store has a new “tech row,” which includes a help desk for students with technology questions and Dell and Apple computer kiosks. Textbooks can still be found where they always were — in the basement.
In the corner of the Seton Hill University Bookstore sit a few short aisles stacked with textbooks.
Most of the Sullivan Hall store is devoted to apparel, school supplies and gifts. A few shelves are stocked with personal care items, while a multi-tiered Boots cosmetics display and a collection of Crabtree & Evelyn lotions earn prime real estate near the checkout counter.
“It used to be books took up three-quarters of the store,” said Barbara Hinkle, Seton Hill vice president for administration and the university's registrar.
Today, textbooks occupy about a quarter of the store, managed by Nebraska-based Neebo, which owns more than 250 college bookstores nationwide.
“(The store) has done a nice job adapting. Students want stuff,” Hinkle said, motioning to a metal bin of stuffed Griffins, the school's mascot.
Seton Hill keeps students shopping in-house by offering rentals and e-books and beating competitors' prices by 10 percent if students show they found a lower price elsewhere.
“The price match has kept our sales where they are,” said Amy Biller, bookstore manager.
Charles Schmidt of the National Association of College Stores said his association tries to get member bookstores to think more about retail and less about textbooks.
“Stores are having to be savvier retailers,” he said. “If you're just stocking shelves anymore that isn't it. We used to be the only game in town 20 years ago for books.”
At California University of Pennsylvania's bookstore, textbook aisles take up about a third of the 7,646 square feet of retail space; clothing occupies another quarter of the store. The bookstore has free-standing displays of Hallmark cards and brightly colored Vera Bradley bags.
“As we've seen a decline in textbook sales, we've tried to add in more” clothing and other merchandise, said manager Dave Alberts, who works for Illinois-based Follett Corp., which manages the store.
Daniel Sieminski, associate vice president for finance and business at Penn State University, said the biggest change for university bookstores has been moving to rental textbooks.
“A lot of students are going online to do pricing analysis. It was pretty much a requirement that we have that service included,” he said.
Sixty-seven percent of schools that display their book prices online had a textbook rental program in 2013, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Renting a textbook costs 35 percent to 55 percent less than buying a new book, Schmidt said.
In the past two decades, college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation, according to the GAO.
Andrew Kornet, a senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said he has purchased books at the college bookstore. “But I wish I hadn't,” he said, citing the high cost.
This year, he was in the store to get the prices of the books he'll need, then compare them to the cost of buying online.
IUP Co-Op Store director Tim Sharbaugh said the rising costs of textbooks has turned students against bookstores.
“The price resistance from students is staggering,” he said.
In the late 1980s, the IUP bookstore was about half its current size and twice as crowded with students swarming the shelves. But now, with competition from online retailers and IUP's own website, the bookstore has a shorter textbook rush.
Carnegie Mellon University has had a sharp decline in the number of students coming through the door.
“We've really had to start shifting our focus,” said Ryan Wolfe, director of campus services. “Whereas textbooks used to really fund the store ... many times now the clothing and other sales end up funding the textbooks department.”
The CMU store offers students an online price comparison so they can see what the book costs in the store new and used, and the costs to rent it, buy it as an e-book, or to buy it from another online retailer.
For professors, it doesn't really matter how a student acquires a book as long as they have the correct edition, said IUP English professor Ben Rafoth.
He still assigns books and orders them through the bookstore, but now he sees students coming in, sometimes with tablets, other times with the books downloaded on their laptops.
“I'm glad that they're reading, and whatever way they can obtain these materials that are best for them, that's the most important thing,” Rafoth said.
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