Steve McSpiritt


Research expert Steve McSpiritt talks about the opportunities that might exist in analyzing Big Data, the importance of maintaining genuine customer conversations, and developing meaningful student surveys — five minutes at a time.

What was your first job?

I was a cashier at Target during high school. We were evaluated on an items-scanned-per-minute ratio, which meant we had to work really efficiently, yet respond to customers at the same time. You’d be surprised by what can go wrong.

How do you describe your current role at Barnes & Noble College?

Practically every area of the company has questions they want to put to our audience of, primarily, college students. My job is to look deeper into those markets and develop the kinds of surveys that will not only answer those questions, but produce the kinds of results that enable us to make the most informed business decisions.

How do you think research informs the Barnes & Noble College mission?

In today’s market place, decisions and strategy are not a one-way street. We need to hear from our students, faculty, client partners and alumni, and understand their views on what we’re offering, so research is important to that objective. What’s driving the importance of research today — in every company — is the realization that only those companies who are having the most genuine conversations with their clients are really succeeding.

Is there just one question you’d like to pose to our campus audience?

It’s not so much a specific question as a more qualitative way at looking at trade-off behaviors — why a student might make one decision rather than another. Those kinds of decisions can happen in a split second, and in a survey context it’s much more difficult for a student to respond to those types of questions.

How do you think the way research is conducted is changing?

I think attention spans have really shortened. You have to present what you’re asking in a much more concise and direct way — any longer than five minutes and you’re going to start to get unclear or untrue answers toward the end of your survey.

In your view, what’s the biggest challenge facing higher education today?

The barriers to accessing a quality college education still exist, and, I think, remains one of the biggest challenges. We focus a lot on cost, but many social or economic barriers come into play, and some students might not even think that, academically, they even have that kind of opportunity. The light at the end of the tunnel might be in the way colleges are offering online courses. If a potential student could access those kinds of opportunities, it could ignite their interest and might help them in pursuing it further.

Why, in your view, is Barnes & Noble College such a great campus partner?

I could be a little biased on this, but I like to think it’s because we listen to our customers. If we didn’t, I’d have a lot less to do! Consumers don’t need to do business with a company that doesn’t value them, and the importance we put on listening and understanding the needs of our customers, is really a huge differentiator for us.

Where do you think the biggest opportunity lies for Barnes & Noble College for the future?

In our hyper-local initiatives. We always say ‘if you’ve seen one Barnes & Noble College store, you’ve only seen one Barnes & Noble College store.’ Each one is different — from its design and construction to its function and role on the campus. Similarly, every student is different and every school has unique needs, so I think research can help enable a future where every student might have a hand in shaping their own particular store experience.

What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?

I like to think I can cook, but not everyone agrees, so maybe I could be a restaurateur — have the experience of running my own restaurant without necessarily having to be in the kitchen.

Favorite part of the store?

I visited the Yale University Bookstore with friends last weekend. We spent easily an hour in the fiction and philosophy trade book section.

Favorite book or book you’re currently reading?

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde. I picked it up at Yale.

Digital or hard copy?

It would have to be a printed copy — and a paperback at that. I get distracted by digital.

Most valuable thing you’ve learned at Barnes & Noble College?

Teamwork and the way we work together. The projects that require interdepartmental input are always the most successful. When you’re working with a diverse set of opinions and different skill sets, you get the best results from so many angles.

What do you think is ‘NEXT’ for research?

Big Data – we already have some exceptional information at Barnes & Noble College, and once we really start to look at it, who knows what else we’ll be able to offer our customers — or what else we can discover?