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University bookstores change with the times

Sales of snacks, laptops, bedding and parking passes replace book sales at many university bookstores.


Judging by the reviews on Yelp, the newly expanded and renovated bookstore at the University of British Columbia gets high marks. Visitors like the modern design, the abundant lighting, the Starbucks and the convenience store that stocks a wide selection of healthy snacks. But the textbooks?

“Don’t make the first-year mistake of buying your textbooks all new from the bookstore,” advises one anonymous reviewer. Instead, check out the prices on Amazon or Craigslist, buy used or simply do without. “Honestly, there are a lot of courses (I’m speaking for science students here) that you can get through even without the required textbooks and still get an awesome mark in.”

More often these days, students are following this kind of advice. “They will either share with their friends or go on the Internet and find the re-sources there,” said Debbie Harvie, UBC’s managing director of university community services.

The result has been a steady erosion of sales at campus bookstores across the country. Adding to their troubles, last year Apple Canada ended its contract with university and college bookstores that had allowed them to sell iPads, Macbooks and other Apple products. To cope with the changes, many schools have embraced the same strategies used by general retailers: downsizing and diversification.

“Bookstores used to be 95-percent textbooks,” said Ms. Harvie, but not any longer. Along with the Starbucks and convenience store, UBC’s new 4,300-square-metre facility includes giftware, a Mountain Equipment Co-op outlet and a wide selection of clothing with UBC and its Thunderbirds athletics insignia. At the start of each academic year, Bed Bath & Beyond and WirelessWave set up pop-up shops in the store.

Upstairs, a spacious mezzanine offers students plenty of seating and study space. To increase foot-traffic, UBC moved its parking office and identity-card services into the bookstore, too, so anyone who has to pay a parking fee or pick up a student card must visit. “I see the store almost as a shopping mall,” said Ms. Harvie. It will change as the community’s needs change, “to make sure we are moving with the times and being of interest to our customers.”

The efforts are starting to pay off. A boost in sales of giftware, clothing, convenience items and trade books has largely offset a drop in sales of textbooks and course materials. Sales overall are expected to be down again in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2015 – to about $23 million from $26 million in 2014 – largely reflecting the loss of the contract with Apple.

All campus bookstores face essentially the same problem, said Jason Kack, general manager of the McGill University Bookstore and Computer Store. They have two peak selling seasons a year – September and January. “Then after that, you rely on other product to generate your revenues.”

McGill hired a retail consultant and held town-hall meetings and focus groups to help plan the future of its bookstore. In 2016, it will have to move to make way for an expanded Desautels Faculty of Management. The move may take place in phases, first to a temporary location and then a permanent one, said Mr. Kack. Plans for the permanent location include a coffee shop, study spaces and new products. The store may also offer temporary kiosks where students can pick up online orders around campus during the back-to-school rush.

“It’s about transforming the space and making it more of a destination for everything,” he said. “But all that takes square footage; that’s going to be the tough part.” McGill has boosted its sales of merchandise and insignia products; its textbook rental program is a big hit with students. But none of that has compensated for the loss of course-materials sales and the termination of the Apple contract.

Like other downtown universities, McGill faces a space crunch, making it harder to adopt the UBC-style changes. Downtown stores also face greater competition from off-campus retailers, whereas UBC’s main Point Grey campus is a 30-minute drive from downtown Vancouver.

But small-campus bookstores are also at a disadvantage since they often lack staff or resources to expand in the way larger stores can. Campus Stores Canada, an industry association, helps its members adapt successful strategies used by other stores to fit their own circumstances. Some suggestions for small bookstores are to have students pick up bus passes and student cards in the stores or host functions with music groups and dance teams to draw crowds, said Jennie Orpen, president of Campus Stores Canada and merchandise manager of the UBC bookstore. She knows of several that have had retailers set up tents in parking lots during the move-in season.

The hurdles facing campus stores are similar to those faced by general booksellers. “When you go into a Chapters or Indigo you see a lot fewer books than you used to,” said Donna Shapiro, director of the McMaster University bookstore. McMaster’s store has increased its giftware, scaled back on trade books and closed an auxiliary site. It changed its name from Titles to the Campus Store, but the name change wasn’t as controversial as the downsizing, especially of its trade-books section – at one time the largest in Hamilton. Faculty members liked the resource, she said, and opposed the move.

Meanwhile, University of Alberta closed two of its secondary bookstore locations in 2013 and recently said it will close its French-language bookstore this year and move the operations online. UBC also shuttered a downtown bookstore at its adult learning centre. Over time, the UBC community has accepted the changes as necessary, said Ms. Harvie. But its plans to drop “bookstore” from its name were strongly opposed, and the move was abandoned.

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