A College Bookstore Q&A

5 Questions to the National Association of College Stores.

June 12, 2014

A couple months ago I wrote a post called College Bookstores Should Not Have Cosmetics Counters.

Lots of people responded to my post with the observation that I don’t seem to know too much about college bookstores. (Or possibly much of anything about anything).

Hopefully that will change today, as Laura Martinez Massie, Public Affairs Manager for NACS (the National Association of College Stores) has graciously agreed to answer all my questions.

By way of background, Laura tells me that NACS is the professional trade association representing the $10 billion collegiate retailing industry. That NACS was founded in 1923 in New York City and is currently headquartered in Oberlin, Ohio.  And that NACS represents nearly 3,000 collegiate retailers in the U.S. and Canada and approximately 1,000 associate members who supply books and other products to college stores.  .

Question #1: Who owns the stores?

This varies from campus to campus. Many are still institutionally owned – that is, run by the school itself. But hundreds are operated under lease contracts by Follett, Barnes & Noble College, or  Nebraska Book Co.,and a few smaller outfits. There are a number of business models:  

The most common types of college stores are:

  • Institutional:  The store is owned and operated by the college or university.
  • Leased: The store is on or near campus but is operated by an external company that has entered into a leasing arrangement with the college or university.
  • Cooperative:  Often a nonprofit, this type of store is owned by students and faculty, sometimes in a shareholder structure where governance is by a board of trustees or directors.
  • Student-run: Some stores are run by students.
  • Nonprofit:  Just like other nonprofit institutions, the store is run by a board of directors or trustees.
  • Private: The store is privately owned and operated; usually refers to off-campus stores.   -While there are hundreds of lease-managed college stores, the majority of the 4,500 stores serving colleges and universities in the U.S. are institutionally owned.

Questions #2: What is the relationship between the college bookstores and the college?  

See above. In some cases, an institutional store is part of auxiliary services or another department/division on campus; in other cases it may be a free-standing entity. In either case it is responsible to the school. How it’s responsible also varies. In some cases, a store is mandated to show a profit, while in other cases there is no such requirement or the requirement is only that it breaks even & doesn’tlose money. In many cases, institutional stores funnel much of the money they make into a general fund for the school or into support for specific programs or scholarships for students.  

States’ textbook affordability and transparency laws treat these various campus store models as part of the college or university and cover them in their requirements and regulations. Some state laws, such as in West Virginia, specifically address contract-managed stores and require all revenue from the contracts go to nonathletic student scholarships.   

Some colleges and universities may employ more than one type of college store service to serve their diverse student needs (for example, distance education students may be served by a virtual bookstore operated by contract while the institutional store distributes course materials online and in store for on campus students). In some cases, the decision is made at the state level.

Question #3: How is college bookstore different from a regular bookstore?  

However they are structured, college stores exist to support the educational mission of the colleges and universities they serve. Core among these requirements that differ from other book providers is ensuring all course materials required at the college or university are available to students. Stores work closely with departments, faculty, library staff, and administrators on managing the course adoption process and finding ways to lower costs for students. This process is extremely detailed, time-consuming, and expensive.  

A college store collects adoption information from faculty and makes it available to students so they get the correct course materials they need (whether they buy it from the school store or not). Also, at a college store, the primary demand for books is seasonal, at the “rush” period that begins each term. In between those rushes, demand for books falls off sharply in many cases.

Trade books (the non-academic titles you’d find in a Main Street bookstore), unless they’re part of the curriculum, have been reduced or eliminated at many campus stores because:a) there simply wasn’t enough demand for them, and b) merchandise that doesn’t sell takes up square footage and ties up inventory dollars. While college stores serve the academic mission with course materials they are alsobusinesses that have to show a profit or at least not bleed money.

College stores are required to provide all students all of their course materials. A campus store, for example, can’t decline to stock certain classes’ materials or pick only the course materials that will generate the best sales. Another significant difference between a college bookstore and a regular retailer is that, for most college stores, their main product is not selected by either themselves or their customers. Instead, faculty select the course material products that the bookstore stocks and sells or rents.

Also, certain legal restrictions and campus policies sometimes limit what college stores can sell. Some schools sign exclusive contracts with certain vendors, like Nike, or place branding restrictions that limit what college stores can order and sell. Schools also often take all revenue from the store, leaving no reserves that can be pumped back into renovations or upgrading systems, whereas in a general trade bookstore they can invest back into the business and take advantage of numerous tax advantages.

Finally, a significant difference is that college stores operate in a fairly significantly regulated space, with both federal and in most cases state law regulating their operations. That affects how the store is run, what products and services the store offers, how things are priced, and where any revenue goes. Regular bookstores generally are not a regulated industry.

Campus stores face huge competition from online sellers, from Amazon and eBay to the latest book-rental startup. College booksellers, on the whole, are very passionate about serving their institution’s academic mission and helping students succeed. The majority of stores have adopted some form of textbook rental to save students money. Many also offer digital course content (when it’s available; not all academic titles are yet), even though student preferences still haven’t made the big tip away from print.

The choice of formats isn’t entirely up to the bookstore; titles are chosen by faculty and sometimes even the formats are dictated by them as well (some instructors – certainly not a majority anymore – are struggling with digitization). Another reason you might not see so many books on shelves now is that academic content is shifting from print to access codes for digital versions.

College stores are also involved in acquiring or even producing custom print content so students get exactly and only the information they need from a variety of sources, all under one cover; for example, rather than buying one book from which they’ll only read two chapters and another book from which they’ll only read the first half, etc. Again, the aim is to save students money while getting them the content they need to succeed.

Question #4:  Further, my guess is that all the non-book stuff is actually profitable.  

It is. Again, these are businesses, responsible to either their corporate parent (if leased) or their college or university (if institutionally owned/independent).

College stores today are professionally run retail operations. 

They offer students more services and quality and diverse products, along with greater transparency (more and more are offering price comparisons with online sellers).
Question #5:  Huge numbers of obscure academic press books? Probably not so much.

Absolutely not. Inventory that sits for five years before the right reader happens to come along and spot it is dead weight. College booksellers love books as much as any other bookseller, but few have the luxury of being able to fill a trade section with non-course-related books that can sit there term after term the way a Main Street seller can. These days, even trade booksellers may have a hard time justifying stocking any “obscure” title. They’re trying to survive Amazon and the digital migration (which, as you know, has surged in the trade sector far more than it has yet in academic).  

College stores reducing their footprint in trade books allows them to make available the products and services that students say they want to see at their stores. Even so, most college stores that have reduced or eliminated their trade book department continue to stock and sell their own faculty authors and continue to hold book readings, signings, and other book-related events. The decline in trade print is a national trend, not a campus store issue.  

Also, regarding non-book merchandise, as part of the school, college stores have a responsibility to promote the school and its brand, not only to current and prospective students and their families, but also to alumni, fans of their athletic teams, and their communities. Again, in most cases any profits from those sales flow to a general fund or specific programs such as textbook scholarships for students.

What do you want to ask Laura about the College bookstore world?


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