The Battle to Stay Independent

By. Ed Dillon

I began my career as a publishing sales representative in 1990. In my territory I worked with 20 bookstores, all independent and institutionally operated. Fast forward to 2017 and only eight of these bookstores remain independent. Over time, beginning in the early ‘90s and accelerating from there, college administrations have made the decision to outsource bookstores to lease operators. Recent numbers indicate that nationally 50 percent of college bookstores are lease operated. When the leasers knock on the door of your administration, they are painting themselves as the “easy button” solution. Countering this is not a one-time message but rather a continued strategy that incorporates creating both operational value and institutional value.

Operational value is the business return you provide to your institution. According to industry consultant Steve Pribyl, among the top reasons stores go lease are: poor financials, bad audits, inventory loss and personnel issues. Lease operators target these financial aspects when forming their value proposition for your administration. With ever-changing market conditions, it is crucial to make sure your administration understands both your challenges and opportunities. In addition, it is incumbent on store leadership to be cognizant of your administration’s goals and KPIs. This reciprocal relationship will aid in developing a strategic plan to quantify and deliver operational value.

Institutional value is your unique brand. Your store, and only your store, understands and can adapt to your campus community. No corporate office in New York or Chicago will ever be able to replicate the tailored experience provided by your independent store. Develop a plan that best serves your students, faculty, administration and alumni. By doing so, you will achieve a unique institutional value that will resonate with your campus community.

Now for the hard part – how to achieve operational and institutional value. While there is no definitive instruction manual, there are concrete steps to begin the process.

  • Get to know your administrators. Their vision, metrics and goals are all keys to the success of your store.
  • Get to know your student body. Sure, price is important. So is convenience and the shopping experience. Understand how your students make buying decisions, how they like to shop, and how they perceive value.
  • Collaborate with faculty including Deans and Chairs. Student surveys indicate faculty heavily influence their course material buying decisions.
  • Stay on top of course material trends, i.e. inclusive access. How can your store best position itself to deliver course materials, whatever the modality?
  • Develop an omnichannel approach blending your physical space with your web and social media presence. Just as students learn differently (see above), they shop through various mediums according to their personal preferences. Convenience, personalization and choice are expectations, not options.
  • Use the above to develop your business plan. Share it. Measure it.
  • Develop a customer service culture. Amazon and the leasers cannot match a local, personalized service culture.

Lastly, engage with your vendor partners: wholesale, retail, publishers and technology. We are committed to providing products and services to help you thrive and remain independent. When you win, we win. Together we can formulate the equation for the present and the future: operational value plus institutional value equals independent bookstore success.

Leave A Comment