When Sherry Pollard started as a temporary employee at University Bookstore in 1991, customer service was not a priority. Pollard, the bookstore’s director, said sheets of brown butcher paper were pulled across the entrance to the store, keeping students from entering while staff packed and shipped surplus books back to the publisher.
“It was not very customer-service orientated back then,” she said.
With independently owned Missouri Bookstore offering the only competition, it didn’t need to be.
Today, however, college bookstores are much different places. With new and used textbooks available at discounted prices via the Internet, and the emergence of digital alternatives to the way students read, receive and digest course materials, college bookstores have been forced to change how they do business.
“It’s incredible, but for years and years everything was exactly the same, and now everything has changed,” Pollard said. “Everything.”
In fact, with students buying books online, renting them, downloading them via the Internet and printing customized texts, college bookstores are facing a bit of an identity crisis. With many, including MU’s, expanding to include coffee shops, make-up counters, electronic stores and clothing outlets, there’s even been talk of a bookless future for the campus bookstore.
That’s not the case at MU, thanks to some forward thinking and an innovative approach to a changing industry.
It began in 2003, when, due in part to changes to the traditional model, University Bookstore moved to consolidate the bookstores on the four University of Missouri System campuses, along with the Stephens College bookstore.
Michelle Froese, public relations manager for Student & Auxiliary Services at MU, said the “shared services” approach required some massaging at one of the first partner campuses. “They were initially concerned that Mizzou would come in and turn everything black and gold,” she said.
But, Frose said, “we made it a priority” that each campus bookstore would reflect the school’s unique identity. Today, she said, nobody’s complaining: University Bookstores is No. 2 in the country in overall sales, with annual increases of anywhere from 25 percent to 54 percent since the consolidation.
Annual profits are up 25 percent to 110 percent, with nearly half of those profits — 45.5 percent, double the national average — from the sale of course-related books and materials. Meanwhile, operating expenses have decreased 33 percent since the consolidation.
“We continue to look for new ways to innovate,” Froese said. “We have an incredible staff and our management team is willing to go out on a limb to make mistakes, if necessary, to achieve our goals.”
One example of the bookstore’s willingness to try something new came when Pollard put her director of technology, Paul Musket, in charge of all textbooks. The result has been the addition of 200 new digital texts, as well as new options for students, such as textbook rentals, installation of the on-demand Espresso Book Machine and custom printing. The bookstore also offers students product information about individual texts so they can shop for the best prices online.
“If the students choose us, great,” Pollard said. “But we are here for them first, and if there is a better option than us, we want to provide them the information to make that decision.”
This fluid approach to customer demand and market opportunity helps the bookstore offer cutting edge products and services, providing students new choices as soon as they become available.
“It’s a very exciting time to be in the business,” Pollard said. “I can’t wait to see what the next five years will bring.”