In an earlier post, I provided a high-altitude view of the college and university (C & U) market; from the perspective of selling products into college bookstores and through their dining services.
This post is going to dive into more detail on the bookstore side. For more on the food service side, read this post. Almost all colleges and universities have some type of book store on campus. This is not just to sell books, but also college logo hoodies and other apparel and gifts, stationary and other sundries that students need.
Traditionally the college bookstore’s core purpose was to stock the textbooks students needed for their classes. The college professors identified the textbooks they would be using for each class to the bookstore, and the bookstore’s job was to make sure they had enough copies on hand for the students registered for each class. But like the overall bookstore industry, the emergence of online bookstores, over the past two decades has changed all that. Textbooks can often be purchased easily and cheaply online. And course materials are often made available online as well, making textbooks themselves, more redundant. The revolutionizing of the book publishing and retailing business model is too large a topic for this post. It is itself a very significant topic, which you can read more about here.
However, the disruption of this legacy purpose of C & U book stores means they are looking for new aspects of their business to emphasize, new products to sell; in short; a new mission. And this can present an opportunity to businesses that have genuinely creative and relevant new products and services.
C & U bookstores are finding that new mission in various ways. They are selling more logoed sportswear and other gift items. They are expanding into fashion and cosmetics. They are also in some cases overlapping with the food aspect of college retail and operating convenience stores… They are also doing things like hosting pop-up shops; short term product installations by third-party vendors.
This is good news for product suppliers who can creatively understand how to fit their product mix into this channel.
How to Reach College Bookstore Buyers?
There are two ways and it depends on who manages the store.
Roughly half of U.S. colleges operate their own bookstore; hiring a retail manager and staff, and doing their own purchasing, and operations. These types of stores are known as ‘self-operated’ stores.
And the remainder of colleges outsource the entire management of their bookstore to a separate company that runs the bookstore for them, paying rent and/or a small percentage of profits to the college.
How to Access Self-Operated (also known as independent) C &U Bookstores
The best way to access self-operated stores is through the National Association of College Stores (NACS), and their annual tradeshow, CAMEX held every spring in different cities throughout the country. Through participating and networking at this conference and trade show you can learn about all the issues facing College stores and especially if you exhibit, meet college store decision-makers.
How to Access Contract Managed Bookstores
There are two main companies operating bookstores for colleges; Barnes and Noble, which also operates bookstores off-campus and Follett, which is entirely focused on colleges. These companies have purchasing offices that suppliers can contact. However, because they are large and have significant purchasing power, it is not an easy process to gain access to these players. But if your product concept is truly unique and in demand or has real brand recognition then these companies may feel your product will generate traffic and profits and you have a shot.
It is never easy to break into a new market channel; it requires having a unique, truly competitive offering as well as patience, business smarts and adequate funding for marketing and sales. Hiring an industry consultant (hint, that’s what we do – call us) can help too. But there are definitely new opportunities; partly because C & U bookstores are seeking to re-invent themselves as their legacy mission of supplying text books has transitioned. These players are seeking genuinely creative and inventive products, solutions and partnerships. If that sounds like you, dive right in!