Long before the season starts to change, the college campus rouses from the summer break and explodes into the busiest time of the college calendar — Rush. Even discounting parents, friends and well-wishers, the sheer numbers on campus are staggering. This fall semester, some 20.2 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Digest of Education Statistics, and perhaps in a nod to an improving economy, that number represents an increase of about 4.9 million since fall 2000.
For Barnes & Noble College, Rush raises the stakes at its 724 campus stores nationwide, as an intense period when resources are particularly tested. In the clamor for back to school, bookstore staff need to be ready for everything from producing school supplies, textbooks and even directions to their students’ first class.
For Danielle Bronicki, Barnes & Noble College’s manager of Store Operations, preparations for Rush starts early.” As far back as March or April, we’re working with every department in the organization on what the stores need to execute around Rush — and that could be everything from planning for pre-Rush events such as orientation and freshmen events to new general merchandise initiatives, improved procedures or store marketing,” she explains.
Large-scale operational issues, such as point-of-sale software releases, web updates or changes in operational polices are calendared during the summer months to ensure the smooth and seamless running of the bookstore and free up staff time to devote to customers when Rush begins. And if the store’s operational framework has to be in place for the students’ return to school, the same holds true for its staff. Bronicki’s efforts on staff and customer issues often compliment Kimberly Shearn’s, the manager of Learning and Development, on staff and customer issues. “Our managers are really tenured, so they’re used to the special pressures on the store at Rush,” explains Shearn, “but we always have an influx of new schools and new managers who need to understand how to prepare for Rush, both operationally and from a training perspective.”
She points out that the company can flex some 15,000 employees during a Rush period, and that includes everyone from temporary booksellers who might just be joining the store for that three-week period, to a seasoned manager who may have been with the company for 15 years. “That’s a lot of people, and tells you that some of the larger stores are on-boarding as many as 100 people prior to the start of classes,” she says.
Shearn’s task, and that of her colleagues, is to touch all of those stores and ensure managers can on-board those employees in the quickest and most efficient way to meet the company’s customer service expectations. And how much help do the students need with textbooks for the academic year? Steven Way, General Manager for the University of Central Florida Bookstores, says he’s seen his customers change in their preparedness to Rush. “Very often we’ll find students have done some research into their classes, get the bare minimum of their coursework titles, then find when they take the class that they actually need more,” he says, pointing out that well into the third week of the semester, the store is still recording a steady demand for textbooks — with an additional surge occurring at mid-terms. “Ninety-nine percent of our staff is students themselves, so they understand the student experience and can really relate to the customers they’re serving,” Way adds.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Rush itself doesn’t live up to its name on the campus. “It’s a very condensed period here,” he admits, “and that’s a reflection of the way the Millennial generation likes to shop – they’re very immediate in their thinking.” That rationale puts a greater demand on bookstore staff who need to be able to react quickly and predict Rush needs before they arrive. “We schedule more people on a daily basis, and in the immediate weeks prior, we’ll add anything we’ll need from more computers for processing, and more booksellers to assist customers,” he says. “A big part of our success is how well our store managers integrate their business into our clients’ business,” Bronicki says, noting how store managers will liaise with faculty, administration and new students to ensure Rush goes smoothly on their campuses. “Rush becomes for us not so much an opening night, as a succession of opening nights, with our managers providing new reasons for our customers to come back to our stores,” she adds.
The expectation, stress and excitement that is Rush is a phenomenon unlikely to end anytime soon. The University of Central Florida created 100 new full-time faculty positions last semester, one of its biggest hiring spurts in recent years, as Way points out. “We recognize the trends and the needs of our customers, and our booksellers and management team always make it work,” he says.
Like every member of the training team, Shearn will be spending her Rush in the field, demonstrating solidarity alongside the very store staff her preparations have tried to help. “You quickly learn how important Rush is,” she says, citing her preference to work in the bookstore aisles among the students, “but increasingly you understand how we’re growing our business to be much more than just this one period — it’s more about how can we be there for our customer every step of the way, any time of the year.”