An Endless Struggle for the College Bookstore

Every semester college students anticipate the grueling moment of finding out how expensive their textbooks will be. Until recently, there were only two primary options, whether to buy new or used. However, over the past few years we have seen a big jump in students’ options at the local campus bookstore. Two years ago textbook rental programs became widely available resulting in significant savings for students and even more recently, they’ve been given the option of downloading a digital version of the textbooks they need as well.

In Fall 2010, college bookstores opened up the option of renting textbooks. Previous to this idea, college bookstores across the U.S. started noticing a decrease in their sales. College tuition was starting to increase so students had a harder time finding extra cash for their textbooks. According to the College Board, college students spend an average of $1,200 on textbooks each year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently noted that between 1990 and 2009 textbook prices rose at four times the rate of inflation.

Ruth Holm who is an employee at the Colorado Christian University bookstore, which is contracted with Follett Higher Education Group with more than 900 stores across the U.S. and Canada, remembers when her bookstore started noticing the struggle.

“At that time we were in a tight competition with Amazon, Chegg and Students started buying online textbooks because they were cheaper. We began to notice a huge decrease in the amount of students coming in to purchase textbooks, causing sales to go down quickly.”

This sudden drop in sales caused Follett and other textbook companies to create a new option for students. They could now rent their textbooks. With this, a textbook costs about half the amount of what it would cost to buy a new book. A student can rent a book and still highlight or make notes in it and as long as they bring the book back in reasonable shape that’s all that’s required. Renting books is also a smart option for students because there is a guarantee that they will only pay half price on their books. Where as if students choose to purchase their books there is never a guarantee that they will get half back when they buy them back at the end of the semester.

Last year, the San Diego State University Bookstore received a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to add titles to its rental program. SDSU then studied rental benefits on student learning. The findings revealed that the rental programs increased classroom performance by giving students a cheaper alternative. They discovered that out of roughly 5,700 students surveyed, 45 percent stated that sometime in the past they did not obtained all the required course material for a certain course due to high prices. Of students who rented, 63 percent felt the ability to rent allowed them to be more prepared for class.

For Follett, the average number of textbooks rented each day is 47,000. Student savings across Follett bookstores is $45 million, and 750 of Follett-managed bookstores are now offering textbook rentals. And this is only one of the many companies offering rentals.

Follett also conducted an online survey of students who have rented textbooks and found that 99 percent of students said they would rent from the bookstore again. Additionally, of students who have rented textbooks both from the bookstore and from another source, 83 percent said renting from the bookstore was the same or better than renting elsewhere. Thankfully because of this new system the life of the college bookstore remains safe and sales continue to stay up…for now.

Whether we like it or not, the world is moving toward digital delivery of content. The Kindle, Nook and Ipad have flown off the shelves over the last couple of years because they are slick, lightweight and great for general reading. E-readers are an eco-friendly, easy way for students to access their books. Students also appreciate the fact that they don’t have to truck around an extra 20 pounds every time they go to class.

There are now numerous websites students can use to find the textbooks they need. Sites such as Zinio, iChapters, CourseSmart, and many others will all do the trick.

Kindle Textbook Rental is a popular way for students to choose their own rental length between 30 and 360 days and pay only for the exact time they need the book. At any time students can extend their rental for as little as one day or convert to the whole purchase of the book. Kindle also claims that you can save up to 80 percent off the print list price.

Holm explains that you can also buy or rent a textbook on a digital device at bookstores, “when a student decides to rent digitally at the bookstore, the book will disappear off their device after 180 days. It’s easy on the students because they don’t have to physically return the book and they don’t have to do any registering like they would if they rented a printed textbook.”

The only thing that Holm and all bookstore employees fear is because of this sudden craze about digital textbooks, everything will eventually go digital and campus bookstores will go out of business. How will the college bookstore survive when students no longer need to buy or sell back new or used books? Bookstores will decline, and perhaps vanish when the current older generation, consisting of people habituated to printed books dies off.

Maybe bookstores will stay in business by transforming completely into sellers of cappuccinos, logo sweatshirts, and other university branded materials. Bookstore managers are indeed creating new personal approaches to enhance students’ in-store shopping experience in attempt to demonstrate benefits over the online competition.

Tom Christopher, the president of Follett’s Higher Education division believes students will not stop buying new textbooks in the near future.

“Over time more content will be going to digital formats. It’s a never-ending conversation around our shop here. We are becoming a house of choices. For us it’s about having options. Depending on who a student is, there will be an option for them in our stores. We focus on having products in all those areas and letting consumer demand take over.”

Being a CCU bookstore employee for the last 12 years, Holm has seen a lot of change in the way students are able to purchase textbooks and has a whole different opinion on the future of the college bookstore. “The popularity of renting textbooks has kept Follett competitive and it is what’s keeping our bookstore alive,” Holm says, “we are still doing very well but I can’t say it will be that way five years from now.”

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About Lindsi Holm

Lindsi is a senior at Metro State College of Denver, with a major in journalism and minor in nutrition. Graduating in December of 2012.

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