A term that is getting a lot of use in retail lately is ‘customer centric.’ As a philosophy, it doesn’t seem at first to be so radical. Sam Walton once famously said, ‘There’s only one boss, and that’s the customer.’ But implementing a strategy where the customer is the center of focus, and being confident that you’re always delivering a positive customer experience can be a difficult ambition to achieve. While surveys, focus groups and website forums are approaches we’re all familiar with, by far the greatest opportunity comes from being able to sit down with the customer and talk. It’s a strategy Barnes & Noble College has traditionally employed in its bookstore advisory meetings, but customer focus has taken on even greater importance with a newer initiative, the Bookstore Innovation Group.
The Bookstore Innovation Group (BIG) is designed to gather feedback from customers, meeting once or twice per semester to assess the bookstore’s performance and discuss enhancements. Rolling out at Barnes & Noble College campus stores throughout this year, the groups are already generating some important ideas. “I love the meetings,” says Mary Mebus, Store Manager at Southern Methodist University. “It’s created some great connections, interactions and feedback from our community.” With a group consisting of nominated students, faculty and school administrators, Mebus believes the format of the meetings provide for some unique interaction. “It’s not just us talking,” she points out. “It’s a personal setting — a conversation — and that allows for some free thinking.”
At the University of Pennsylvania, free thinking is precisely what the meetings are about. “We wanted to get back to basics before we even started to talk about innovation,” explains Christopher Bradie, Associate Vice President for the Business Services Division. Significantly, Barnes & Noble College does not own the group, the University does, appointing Director of Communications and External Relations, Barbara Lea-Kruger as the facilitator. “We started from the position of what is the role of the bookstore, what is it doing now that works, and what could we see it doing in the future?” she says, adding that asking those kinds of questions has led to some rich conversations.
Like any forum, the makeup of the group is key, and, as Bradie points out, needed to be as inclusive as possible. “We were very deliberate about how we extended invitations to the community; we tried to get students from larger schools such as our Arts & Sciences and Business schools, together with some of our schools with smaller populations,” he says. Other members include representatives from student government, faculty, staff and the college library as a counterpart organization. “When you look at the composition of the team, they’re bringing a perspective that is quite diverse,” Bradie explains. That diversity has been demonstrated in an impressive level of engagement. “We have very broad perspective – it’s not ‘group think’ – everyone in the group brings their own outlook as a constituent as well as unique ideas,” he adds.
A key issue the University of Pennsylvania group wanted to explore was how the various stakeholders felt about their bookstore in general and the nature of their interaction. “We wanted our representatives to participate as individuals who read books and to ask very fundamental questions such as how do you acquire reading materials, what kinds of books do you like – that kind of interaction can be really exciting,” Bradie says.
The kinds of engagement and responses from the Bookstore Innovation Groups have already generated improvements and a difference in thinking both on Barnes & Noble College campuses and corporately. Symbolically, the group at the University of Pennsylvania held their latest meeting in the newly remodeled bookstore, a product of the relationship between the store and the campus it serves.
At Southern Methodist University, closer communication has led to more outreach ideas, initiatives to support campus sports and school spirit programs, and the opportunity to work more closely with the university’s Residence Life team ─ conversations SMU’s Mebus welcomes. “We’re talking to our group as partners, as campus leader’s, and as our customers,” she says. “Understanding those relationships, and the way they look at the bookstore can really make an incredible difference.”