Building Bookstore Relevancy Beyond the Transaction

January 10, 2014


Students shop at the Rutgers University Bookstore in New Brunswick, N.J.


‘Stack ‘em high and let it fly,’ used to be the mantra of retailers helping to usher in the golden age of consumerism. Those were simpler days, when a well-lit store and convenient parking kept the cash registers ringing, but today, things are very different. Catering to the needs of more savvy consumers, with changed expectations and the challenges of competitive technology, retailers are facing a perfect storm of changes to the way business used to be conducted. Those changes have never been more pronounced than within the college community, where the way a new generation of students shop, use technology and relate to brands they use has significantly altered the role of the campus bookstore.

Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Barnes & Noble College, Patrick Maloney.
Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Barnes & Noble College, Patrick Maloney.

In an attempt to better understand the changing attitudes, preferences and behaviors of today’s college students, University Business recently hosted a web-seminar titled, Transforming the Bookstore to Maximize Revenue Opportunities. During the hour-long presentation and Q&A webcast, guest presenters, Patrick Maloney, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Barnes & Noble College and Lisa Malat, Vice President, Marketing & Operations, revealed some of their observations and experiences with helping partner colleges understand this changing environment.

Maloney introduced the presentation by saying he had never been more excited about the industry, “I’m so bullish on the future of the campus store,” he said, “and our ability to create great bookstores that are vibrant destinations for your students while creating revenue for your schools.” Understanding that opportunity had come from the path Barnes & Noble College had forged from retail textbook provider to essential campus partner, a transformation that began with changing the retail model to provide greater textbook options in response to students’ need for more affordable course materials. Maloney pointed out that 80 percent of the company’s title base is now available for rent, while the company is also preparing the wider adoption of digital materials. But he explained that the way to be a more valid campus retailer, beyond just a transactional provider, is to reevaluate a stores’ relationship with its customers. “Customers want one-on-one relationships, and finding out what that individual customer wants and continually communicating with them is vital,” he said.

Ask, Listen and Respond

Barnes & Noble College has discovered what customers want through extensive research and engagement, and currently employ a wide variety of channels, engaging nearly five million students and alumni through Facebook pages, Instagram accounts and the company’s The College Juice blog. These kinds of communications, together with research and surveys, have helped create a better understanding of what the customer needs and what they expect. “What we learned was that the bookstore won every time on the issues of credibility, convenience and service,” Maloney said. “And if we provided those key elements and kept focused on those differentiators, they would reward us with their business.”

Vice President of Marketing and Operations for Barnes & Noble College, Lisa Malat.
Vice President of Marketing and Operations for Barnes & Noble College, Lisa Malat.

The two-way communication is not only a useful research tool, and the kind of authentic communication that faithfully reflects the campus mission and values, but it can easily spill over to the physical bookstore footprint. A good example of this is the Igniting the New Student Connection initiative, a program which developed from customer input and has helped school partners drive $20 million through their bookstores during the Fall Rush period. “We found students want a connection to the brands they shop with,” co-presenter, Malat maintained. “They also need help, guidance and expert advice with what textbooks they need, what format is best, should they buy or rent — and they expect that clarification to come from the campus bookstore,” she added.

Students also want a voice, and Malat revealed that when the company launched their Facebook pages four years ago, it helped establish a new channel of conversation. Now, the company engages with over 700,000 users in social forums where they can answer textbook questions, share news about author events, supporting local causes, or ask students opinions on new product ideas. “To us, social is service,” Malat explained, “We ask, we listen, and we respond.” These kinds of interactions, and the physical importance of getting outside of the four walls of the bookstore to build relationships across the campus, can help not only drive more business to the store, but make it more relevant and the focus of a social hub to the college.

Fixated on Customers

Hundreds of business leaders logged into the seminar with its overriding message of customer interaction as being one of the most important keys to the success of the campus bookstore. “Everything we do is really driven by our customers, Malat maintained. “Stay close to your customers.” she advised, “Stay aligned and stay in tune with them.” COO Maloney said that results of Barnes & Noble Colleges’ recent Campus Partner Survey pointed to the fundamental message of the company’s mission. “We learned that student retention and recruitment were the top two priorities for our schools, and it’s our job to be thinking of ways to support those goals, and what role the campus bookstore can play to truly support that mission,” he said. Maloney also believes that those kinds of goals were the same goals on which Barnes & Noble College was founded; on the belief that students deserved more. “More than a series of retail transaction, we believe in continually listening and responding to the needs of our customers,” he maintained, “– that’s our fixation.”

To listen to a recording of the webinar, click here.