Talk about strategic merchandising. When Barnes & Noble College took over management of the Polk State College bookstores on both the Winter Haven and Lakeland campuses in July, it began the planning process for determining the very specific needs of its students by canvassing the store managers. They were asked what one item would fly off of the shelves if there were no restrictions to selling it. According to the assistant manager at the Lakeland campus, the response was socks.
“We’re in Florida. Everyone wears flip-flops and sandals, but bare feet aren’t allowed in the labs,” explained Barnes & Noble College Regional Manager Andy Shaffer. “We had students coming in all day long looking for socks to wear with their sandals. Carrying them not only would increase sales, but provide a great extra service to our students.” It was a no brainer for Shaffer, who quickly added socks to the mix of apparel offered in the stores. “So guess what we ordered?” he said. “It’s something we would have never known if we hadn’t asked. Communicating with your school community is so important — and can make all the difference.”
Stocking the shelves with socks may seem somewhat prosaic, but it’s only one of many changes to the bookstores. “We found that customers had very different experiences depending on which campus they visited,” Shaffer said. Since the campuses are located only 25 minutes apart, some students take classes at both campuses, based on course availability. Yet inventory wasn’t the same in both stores, and two separate managers, who didn’t report to one another, resulted in two very different experiences and communication challenges.
“We decided that the best way to handle this was to bring in a general manager at Winter Haven who oversees both locations, and a store manager for the second campus at Lakeland.” The results? “We’ve heard nothing but positive feedback so far,” said Shaffer. Indeed, according to Philip “Dudley” Charneskie, former director of purchasing in the Business Office at Polk State College, the bookstores are back and better than ever. “I have worked with Barnes & Noble before and know your company to be very professional and expeditious,” Charneskie said in an email. “However, Andy and his team exceeded even my high expectations.”
While students can use their financial-aid in the bookstore, under its previous management, they didn’t know how much money there was to spend or if it was ready to use. “They’d spend 10 minutes picking out their books and then they’d spend 10 minutes waiting in line to pay only to discover their financial aid wasn’t available,” Shaffer stated. “Now, during peak days, our greeters help students figure out what they need to know about their financial aid before they get on line and get frustrated. They need to know what’s available as well as what’s available in the store,” he continued.
Not only can students use their financial aid for pickup or delivery of books — a benefit not available previously — but they can pick up their texts at either store for free. “Before the transition, students couldn’t move their order back and forth between campuses,” Shaffer said. “A book ordered at the Lakeland bookstore could only be picked up at Lakeland. Now, we’ll move the inventory for them, which is extremely advantageous for busy professionals who are taking evening courses and would prefer to pick up their books in a single location. Or, if they’re taking a course in Lakeland, but work in Winter Haven, they have that choice to pick up in Winter Haven, made simply by indicating it on the book order.”
In addition, both stores experienced a complete reset and re-merchandising, with better lines of sight for customers and Barnes & Noble College’s robust merchandising standards. For example, to help with the back-to-school rush, supplies are displayed for easy pickup. Pencils, pens, highlighters, notebooks and planners are clearly visible near the registers so students don’t forget must-haves for class. “We deployed additional registers at both locations to reduce checkout times,” Shaffer said. “Under previous management, peak checkout time was 25 to 30 minutes; now we’re running under 10 minutes.”
“I’ve had a couple of students mention that they walked in with apprehension seeing a line, but walked out very happy with how quickly and completely we were able to take care of our customers,” said Nick Carroll, store manager for Polk State College in Lakeland. Natalie Johnson, general manager for the Polk State College bookstores, concurs. “In the past, lines wrapping around the store building were very frustrating,” she said. “Our lines never exceed 20 students at one time, and our wait time is 5 to 10 minutes, less than five minutes to find your textbook and less than five minutes if you needed to pick up an online order,” she added, crediting the diminished wait to additional registers, more booksellers in the aisles and proper training.
Polk State College also operates three charter collegiate high schools on both campuses. The Winter Haven and Lakeland campus bookstores also service the needs of those students, who graduate with both a high school and associate’s degree. “On August 14, [the high school] had its orientation and we opened exclusively for those students, so that they could see the new bookstore and get all of their new books for class,” said Carroll. “What was supposed to be 500 people — students and families — swiftly became about 1,000,” she said. “My staff and I were here for about three hours helping the students. It was a great learning experience for all of us,” he continued. “They learned a little bit more about the store and what we offer, and we were able to have a pre-rush dry-run of sorts with all of our new line-shortening techniques before the college students returned. We also received valuable feedback for the following week’s rush and for our lines moving forward.”
Johnson is pleased with what her store has been able to improve and deliver to Polk State College students so far. “Providing expert knowledge of textbooks, delivering the ultimate customized shopping experience and putting our customers first is part of our Barnes & Noble College culture,” Johnson said. “We’re just getting started, so stay tuned for more ‘wow’ customer experiences.”