The Future of College Stores
I gave talks at UBTech and CAMEX over the last year on the future of college retail. College bookstores face an existential crisis with the looming demise of physical book sales as digital technology rapidly becomes an option for learners. At the same time free content, via websites like the Kahn Academy, or through more proprietary means, like Apple’s iTunes University (now iTunes U). And then there is the rise of open-sourced content available places like the Open Education Resources Commons (OER).
So what should college stores consider as the elements that will help make them relevant as their core mission apparently shifts?
First, let me say that if a bookstore saw its core mission as selling books, then it should start by redefining its mission. This is a strategic approach to the question. Campus bookstores are not bookstores, and even if they see themselves more broadly as campus retailers, they still miss the reality of their nuanced position. The mission of campus retailers should be to “offer goods and services that enhance the learning experience of the students while reinforcing the institution’s brand promise.” As most stores are affiliated with a campus directly (even those that have been outsourced or had part of their operations outsourced, remain tightly tied to the identity of the institution they are associated with) they need to see their role as a broad one, not a narrow one in order to survive deeper into the 21st-century.
The illustration to the left outlines many of the factors that need to be reconsidered for college stores to create unique experiences, as well as modernize their there operations.
Before I go to the bullet list, let me digress by saying that the creation of unique experiences is something that even the smallest stores from the most boutique of colleges and universities can tackle. Those schools have a unique value proposition that attracts them to the school. Although education can be driven by cost, cost alone does not redefine the attraction of a campus. The experience: the students, the approach to learning, student activities, the attractiveness of the campus, the curriculum, the educators, the food, and many other factors go into that choice. The campus retailer must strategically consider themselves as one of those elements, and the institution must invest so that the campus store experience not only reflects the uniqueness of the campus but enhances and integrates with it as well. The campus store should be considered a strategic asset, not a transaction point.
Here are other design elements that need to be aligned to provide value, reflect the brand and create an experience:
High-Quality, Knowledge-Based Service: College stores should see themselves as an extension of, and supplement to, the learning experience. Consider art supplies. Should the art supply team be interested in stocking shelves and pointing to their location, or to enhancing the value of the art experience for those taking art classes—explaining trade-offs between brands and mediums. The opportunity exists for technology or other specialties of the campus. It would be cost-prohibitive for most stores to hire a wide variety of knowledgeable students to populate their stores, but they should consider strategic hires for differentiated, high-return areas and think about community-based programs, either online or physical, to help people navigate their needs while in the store, or even ahead of a visit.
Content Curation: One specific instance of high-quality, knowledge-based service is content curation. As the content world becomes more complex, the college store can offer value-added resources to faculty and students to help them understand the options they have, and the relative value of different sources of information and approaches to the delivery of that information. Think about content now as software. The educator can write a specification or requirements document and the store team, like programmers, can assemble a solution for the educator that meets his or her specification. Like programmers, the language or technique doesn’t matter to the solution recipient, what matters is that the software meets the requirements and delivers its expected value.
Sensory: Many retailers are looking at the five senses to help create more memorable experiences for retailers. The individual nature of institutional campus stores means that they don’t have the budget of major chains, but technology and globalization have driven down the costs of design components like lighting, sound, images, even smells. And touch and taste are very local and very human. Even the smallest stores with the most meager budgets can rethink their physical and sensory experience. How many television designs shows provide $10,000 and 2-days to remake the look of a room. Campus stores would do well to consider aesthetics and sensory enhancements to create better, more memorable experiences that move them from transaction hub to “third-place.”
Build Relationships: Customer relationship management sounds so corporate, but having a relationship with customers is fundamental to retail, even at the smallest scale. Relationships reflect trust and give organizations permission to extend services. Content curation, for instance, would not be a valid service if the college store didn’t have a good relationship with its faculty, a relationship that demonstrated its ability to add meaningful value.
Functional Technology Architecture: Retail transaction technology is becoming cheaper and more mobile. Do you still need a large cash warp area or could you create a more distributed transaction design that uses mobile technology to sell to people where they are buying? At the lowest level, don’t let technology interfere with the retail experience. Don’t make it hard for people to buy things, or return things. And also consider staff. Deploy modern, streamlined systems that allow staff to concentrate on adding value, not keeping the books straights through onerous transactions that suck up their time.
Interactivity and Entertainment: Major retailers have discovered that one way to keep people in their stores longer, and hopefully entice them to buy more, is to provide engaging entertainment or educational experiences that provide positive reinforcement of the brand while putting products in good light. This does not mean getting a cheap HD TV and sitting it on a shelf above a DVD player with dandling cords and continuously playing a product video from a supplier. In fact, it really doesn’t mean that. What it does mean is thoughtfully integrating unique interactivity and entertainment elements into the store design. Disney does this very well as they bring down mirrors and walk-through castles to the size of their young customers. Things light up and talk to them. And yes, I realize that most college stores can’ even consider a Disney investment, but again, with software and computing technology and a little DIY, most campus IT programs would love to tackle the challenge of creating a brand experience for their campus that is showcased in the campus store. Free labor for the store, credit for students, and a new curriculum element for a professor. Win-win-win.
Physical Store Cartography: The flow through a store is a major design element. When you add in ideas like interactivity and entertainment, you want those to not be randomly placed elements, but integrated into the store so that the path to them is a journey, not an accident. And that goes for other destinations in the store. Make walking through the store a pleasurable experience that offers a few surprises along the way that translate into selling opportunities. And use good merchandising principles to create logical relationships between products (or if not logical, meaningfully surprising relationships).
Integrated with Online: Most stores are not just physical locations any longer. Many are also online destinations. The online experience should complement the physical store with better inventory, more information, and extensions of in-store experiences. Design the website with the exact same design goals as the physical store. That doesn’t mean a virtual store, because those haven’t proven themselves yet, but it does mean that the website should be attractive, engaging, interactive, educational, and brand reflective – and completely synergistic with the store and the overall campus brand experience. Be consistent in approach, intent, and brand promise delivery.
Community: Consider how the store’s physical location becomes more than a “third-place” where students spend time beyond the classroom, the dorm, and the library. Think about it as a destination for the community. Can the store sponsor talks by professors and other local authors? Can it house community meetings, poetry readings, quartets? If you invest in creating a unique experience that reflects the brand, you want to ensure that people are in the place to pick up the vibe. By designing in a flexible space that can be reconfigured from the retail floor to meeting space in off-hours, the store creates more utility, which increases its value. Community and “third-place” may also require the introduction of food services, which should be of high quality and reflect the same attention to detail as the greater store experience.
So take some time to visit a college store and share your thoughts about how these ideas might enhance the experience or share stories of great examples where a store has implemented one or more ideas related to this post.
Campus stores may not be the money maker that is a major football or basketball television contract, but they are more present and more integrated than any external revenue source. As campus stores face the demise of the physical book, a word that many still maintain in their store’s name, educational institutions need to provide them with the permission and the investments dollars required for reinvention. Perhaps through that reinvention, college stores can reinvigorate other areas of the academic experience that could benefit from the recognition of their own precarious existential position.
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