A Change in Store: Outsourcing the Campus Bookstore

September 16, 2013


The rewards of campus retailing can seem deceptively easy to achieve. Catering to a large, and often captive, student population with a long list of retail needs, the success of any college retail venture would seem assured. The truth, however, is often less simple. Staffing and operational costs can become exhaustive, students are being offered an increasing number of alternative buying options and the retail landscape itself is becoming more complex. Perhaps because of these reasons, Barnes & Noble College has seen an increase in the number of colleges and universities seeking its expertise in the management of their previously self-operated bookstores.

Managing Transition

That trend isn’t hard to understand for Barnes & Noble College’s Amy Taylor. “I think we bring a lot of value to the campus,’ says the Project Manager, New Store Openings. “We’re experienced in making the bookstore a great destination, rather than just a source for textbooks, and we have the knowledge to expand the offerings into all kinds of general merchandise and convenience products,” she adds. When a campus makes the decision to outsource its self-operated store, the transition can happen quickly. The actual changeover includes every business discipline from technology and staffing to public relations and inventory management, and is often completed within six weeks. “There are a lot of moving parts,” explains Taylor, “but each store is unique, so we don’t follow a cookie-cutter format and we’re careful to work with our customers to ensure we’re maintaining the local feel of the campus.”

Mount Mary College student selecting items from the school supply section of the bookstore. The MMC Bookstore, previously operated by the college, was outsourced in 2012 to Barnes & Noble College.
A student selects school supplies in the Mount Mary College Bookstore, located in Milwaukee, WI. The store, previously operated by the college, was outsourced in 2012 to Barnes & Noble College.

That personal touch is something Regional Manager Dana Hagge works hard to maintain with customers in her Northern California territory. “We understand that transitioning a store can be a sensitive – even anxious time, so we’re careful to inform the campus in everything we do from training the bookstore team to partnering with student services and faculty. We’re going to take as much time as needed to integrate the bookstore into the campus community.”

Debbie Parker, a Regional Manager on the East Coast agrees. “We work closely with our customers outlining the transition process week by week so everyone’s aware, everyone’s communicating and we have the opportunity to learn from each other,” she says. Parker also wants to ensure her team overcomes any preconceived ideas about the company. “We want to show that we’re not a big conglomerate taking over their bookstore, but rather a true business partner on campus,” she says.

Partnerships that Make the Difference

The Spartan Bookstore, formerly operated by the San Jose State University, now has a tech store within the bookstore.
The Spartan Bookstore, formerly operated by San Jose State University in San Jose, CA, was outsourced to Barnes & Noble College in 2011.

Because of this level of care, Hagge reports positive outcomes from the store transitions in her area. “Our customers are pleasantly surprised from the level of interaction and service we bring, and we make it clear that we’re really all about the students,” she says. “They (our campuses) are extremely welcoming, inviting us to participate and build a partnership with them, and that’s an opportunity we really value,” she adds.

Parker stresses that education is one of the ways to help build that partnership. “Whether it’s our rental program, FacultyEnlight or NOOK Study™, we have a lot of information to bring to campus, and it’s important to have as many meetings as possible – before we even open our doors,” she says. “We spend a lot of time on education,” Hagge agrees. “In most cases we’re providing more choices and a wider range of merchandise, so we want to make sure we guide everyone through the complexities of the business,” she adds.

The Trend of Outsourcing

As costs rise, colleges continue to look for ways to lower operating overhead while focusing on providing the best possible education for students. Increasingly, the trend on campus is to look to outside companies to manage a wide variety of services – from garbage disposal to technical expertise. It’s against this environment that Barnes & Noble College can show its retail excellence. “Our customers see immediately the difference in service and the extended range of products that we offer,” Hagge says, “and there’s an art to merchandising; whether its school supplies or clothing, so even though we may be transitioning over an existing store, our merchandising creates a bright, friendly and welcoming environment.”

Barnes & Noble College managed stores also provide a highly practical advantage for the campus; being able to measure student savings on course materials, a valuable feature most campuses don’t have the opportunity to track. But there’s perhaps an even more important benefit, as Hagge points out. “We love to support the college at events by organizing book signings or by interacting with students at orientations,” she says. “By getting out and partnering with people on campus, those kinds of initiatives set us apart and give us the opportunity to show our customers that we’re so much more than just a place where students go to pick up a textbook.”