The belief that you can’t make a good thing better has probably never occurred to those at Barnes & Noble College charged with improving the bookstore experience. It certainly hasn’t occurred to Lew Claps who, like his fellow bookstore managers around the country, is constantly looking at ways his store can play a greater role in the success of the campus he serves.
Barnes & Noble College has managed the Penn Bookstore at the University of Pennsylvania since 1996, but a durable and strong partnership with the university hasn’t meant there wasn’t room for improvement when it came to a store makeover. “When we moved into the building 16 years ago, 60,000 square feet was about the right size for this store, but things change; our customers have changed, and the way they use the store has changed, too,” Claps points out. So when conversations started with the university a year ago about the idea of a renovation, the prime objective was how best the store could now optimize the space.
Working with architects, designers and university administration, the bookstore team looked at similar retail spaces and the way a new generation of customers use those stores. “We’ve had a transition to electronic media, a change in textbooks and how course materials are presented, and frankly, how students make purchases,” says Marie Witt, Vice President for the Business Services Division at the University of Pennsylvania.
Most important to all stakeholders was to develop an understanding of how the renovation could help the bookstore better reflect the objectives of the university, not just in the provision of course materials, but as an opportunity to promote the Penn brand identity and create a stronger sense of place for the community. As a result, one of the biggest improvements of the new renovation program was to bring more of the university into the store. “We had the opportunity to bring some key Penn entities within our four walls,” Claps says.
The second floor, which had housed the store’s CD and DVD department, had sufficient floor space to accommodate two new functions. Formerly located in the Franklin Building, the PennCard Center, which provides the official University of Pennsylvania identification card, moved in alongside another new store addition, the Computer Connection. “Everyone, from students, faculty and guest lecturers has to have a PennCard, and this created a wonderful new space for the facility while developing greater foot traffic for the store,” Claps explains. The new location also enables the center to provide additional amenities such as notary and passport photo services. Moving in next door, the Computer Connection was able to enjoy more floor space to display products and better opportunities for hands-on product testing.
The renovations also included a new enclosed events room adjacent to the café. In addition to accommodating the store’s frequent author events, the space also provides state-of-the-art lecture equipment and serves as a study area with ample seating, power outlets and USB ports. On the first floor, a new product layout also helps to better reflect the university brand, as Claps explains. “Previously, we led with our trade books. You walked into the building and that was the first thing you saw,” he says. “But now we lead with an expanded selection of Penn merchandise, which provides more opportunities for branding and better reflects the school spirit.” As Penn’s Witt points out, the changes in student purchasing and expectations has allowed the University to “do something very different” with their key retail space.
The Penn Bookstore unveiled its new refurbishment just before classes began this summer, but it was a credit to both the staff and to the loyalty of the customer base, that the store remained open and reported strong business throughout the renovations. “Everyone wanted to see what was going on with the store,” says Claps, in an acknowledgement, perhaps, that making a good thing even better is always going to get you noticed.