Going To the 'Xtreme'

July 31, 2008

NEW YORK -- The Nokia store on 5th Avenue looks like something Timothy Leary might have dreamed up on an acid trip.

As a gaggle of college bookstore owners enter through Nokia’s glass doorway, the neon blue walls behave in chameleon fashion, melting slowly into green. The latest Nokia cell phone models adorn the walls, and -- in a pretty nifty trick -- product descriptions of each phone flash on flat screens anytime the phones are touched.

“That’s probably the most stellar retail concept I’ve seen in the last decade,” proclaims Mikhail Dzuba, manager of the campus bookstore at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver.

The high tech Nokia store, which is obviously high cost as well, is something most college bookstores would be hard-pressed to mimic. Yet the hope of the National Association of College Stores is that even managers operating on shoestring budgets will be inspired by cutting edge retail concepts. To that end, the association brought about 50 college store managers and directors to Manhattan for a three-day seminar this week, showing the group some of the splashiest retail displays in the world.

While the client base for college stores is typically 18- to 22-year-olds, the average college store director is a woman in her late 40s or early 50s, according to the association. As such, there’s often a gap between the director’s idea of a perfect shopping experience and the expectations of their college-aged consumers.

“I don’t know anymore that I’ve got the pulse [of this generation],” confessed Carol Miller, director of North Dakota State University’s stores.

And there’s the rub. How do college stores keep up with the times? Their customers have been wooed by the glitzy marketing of companies like Abercrombie & Fitch, which has transformed its stores into something akin to a rave scene -- complete with pulsating music and scantily clad models. In a world where shopping has become a hyper-immersive and interactive experience -- today’s students expect to be able to customize their own Nike sneakers -- where does the college store fit?

During a lunch break at the Food Emporium Monday, one college bookstore manager offered this blunt assessment: Many store buyers are stuck in their ways, and they don’t do the research to find out what college students really want.

“The biggest problem with college bookstores is the age of the buyers,” said the manager, who asked not to be identified speaking ill of some of her colleagues.

The manager says she “cleaned house” several years ago, weeding out people who seemed entrenched in traditional modes, and unwilling to “walk the floor” to interact with students.

At the University of Hawaii, a relatively young employee says she’s struggled to get the more seasoned higher ups to adapt to changing times. Misha Tajima, development coordinator at Hawaii, says she has pressed her buyer unsuccessfully to add pink apparel that would appeal to young women.

“He refuses to have anything that’s not gray, green or white,” says Tajima, who is in her 30s.

Big Ideas, Small Budgets

Now in its fourth year, the National Association of College Stores’ conference, “Exploring the Xtremes of Collegiate Retailing,” relies heavily on the independent observations of participants. Store managers and directors are let loose in Soho, for instance, taking pictures of unique fixtures and displays in stores like Urban Outfitters and Prada. When they return, participants report on concepts they might be able to borrow for their own stores.

After touring Urban Outfitters, several participants were excited to see the store using old desks and file cabinets to display clothing. Even college stores with low budgets can find outdated furnishings to spruce up a display -- a technique known as “re-purposing” in retail parlance.

While some quick fixes are obvious, slim budgets often make big changes difficult at smaller colleges. Lana Harris, manager of the north campus store for Broward College, a two-year institution in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was full of ideas when she left the association’s seminar last year. She managed to persuade the college to let her paint the store in varied colors -- fuchsia and blue among them -- but not without some prodding.

“We get to go on these trips, but when it comes to implementing it, it’s always a fight,” Harris says. “It’s frustrating.”

Signs of Change

While some college store managers lament that they’re behind the times, the conference left little doubt that the industry is changing. Once primarily known for textbooks and T-shirts, college stores are now just as likely to sell iPods, Nintendo Wii’s and computer software.

Indeed, textbooks are often the last thing college bookstores want customers to see when they enter. At New York University’s bookstore, which was part of the association's tour of stores, students are greeted by displays of magazines and bestsellers like Jon Stewart’s America, the Book. The textbooks are in the basement.

Cathy Midzain, director of Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, Canada, notes that her store is following the lead of Amazon.com. With a growing emphasis on online sales, Midzain says, “My plan since I got there six years ago was to get rid of all the textbooks entirely.”

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