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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Sales down at the AS bookstore, students shift to rentals, e-books

Many factors are involved in an approximately three-year downward swing in sales at Western’s Associated Students Bookstore. Total sales dropped by $190,583 in the 2015 fiscal year from year before, a decrease of 2.7 percent. In 2016, sales declined by $575,475, or 8.63 percent, according to bookstore data.

“It is very much a national trend. It’s really related to the decline in book sales — course materials as we call them now — and it has been quite significant,” AS Bookstore general manager Peg Godwin said.

Godwin said textbook affordability has become increasingly important to students who compare book prices with online retailers. In response to that market pressure, she said, the bookstore introduced new sales models at usually lower price points, like rentals and e-books.

Of the 2015 losses, more than 95 percent were due to losses in course book sales and rentals and almost 98 percent of the losses the following year were due to a loss in such sales.

However, the bookstore defied the national negative trend, by increasing its sales by 8 percent to $373,386 in 2013. After The College Store, the AS Bookstore’s main competition, closed up shop in Sehome Village in 2012, sales increased by 2 percent to $100,152 in 2014, Godwin said. Sales began declining after that.

According to Western’s Office of Institutional Research, the 2015-16 academic year brought an increase of 450 more students compared to 2011-12, when Western reeled in an average of about 14,291 students. In comparison, book sales in 2016 made up only 76 percent of the bookstore’s sales, down $272,996 from 2012.

 

 

The AS Bookstore is striving for relevance

“Of course, we’re always interested in student buying decisions. One of the things we are always looking at is market share: of the books that are being purchased by the students, how many are being purchased at the bookstore?” Godwin said.

Students in fact can easily compare bookstore prices with online retailers with the AS Bookstore’s Verba Compare tool on its website.

Godwin said the bookstore is consistently seeing students choosing not to purchase required course books right away, or even at all.

“Students are making choices about whether they are going to buy groceries or they’re going to buy textbooks,” Godwin said.

Another reason students may be buying fewer course books is because students can access tools and resources related to their courses online, which was not possible a decade ago, Godwin said.

Godwin said some courses, like English 101, are moving away from required course materials, meaning a lost opportunity in sales for the bookstore.

Godwin said the bookstore depends on a steady profit margin year to year, which it shares back with the AS. Not only is the bookstore ensuring by enticing students with new sales models, it relies on offering advantages that students can’t find elsewhere, she said.

“Students are making choices about whether they are going to buy groceries or they’re going to buy textbooks.”

Peg Godwin, AS Bookstore general manager

Godwin said increasing sales, reducing the size of bookstore departments and improving their operating efficiency could be be necessary to keep the bookstore’s profit margin steady going forward as book sales decline.

The bookstore has been keeping its gross profit margin steady so far, hovering around 23 percent every year. Godwin said the approximate $150,000 in net sales revenue the AS Bookstore makes every fiscal year is not a huge amount, considering it is a $6.5 million business.

At the end of the fiscal year in June, Godwin said $25,000 of the net revenue is taken out and placed in the store’s reserve account. The rest is then split 50-50 between the AS and the bookstore.

The AS Bookstore is aligned with Western’s Division of Enrollment & Student Services’ goals, such as student success, and though the store’s prices are not always the lowest on the market, its goal is to not be a profit center, Godwin said.

“We do discount our textbooks 10 percent off of what the suggested list price would typically be, and we figure that’s worth somewhere between $400,000 and $450,000 per year for our students,” she said. “That’s a little bit of a tough thing right now because there’s no guarantee with sensitivity to price that if we priced at the top end of the market, we would have anywhere near the market share of the sell-through we currently have.”

However, the AS Bookstore has recently been enticing students with alternatives, such as rentals and e-books.

 

AS Bookstore has been differentiating its offerings to students

Godwin said bookstores used to offer just new and used books, but now students can also get new and used rentals, e-books, access codes and all-inclusive access to course materials.

Rentals, Godwin said, only really began taking hold in the marketplace three or four years ago and have become compelling to students since they offer the lowest upfront expense, typically at 40 to 60 percent of the new book cost. Then, students don’t have to worry about reselling or disposing of the book.

Godwin also said rentals are popular with students taking General University Requirements, which students aren’t really invested in as much as with upper division courses.

Students purchasing rentals also makes a positive difference on bookstore margins when compared to selling back a previously purchased book, Godwin said. This has been especially true since the bookstore started managing rentals on its own after its third party rental service provider, Rafter Group, got out of the rental business a year ago. The AS Bookstore now owns the books it rents, so when students give back a rental, it doesn’t incur a cost like it used to, and the bookstore can either rent it out again or sell it back to the wholesaler.

Godwin also said she sees e-book sales increasingly helping with the store’s margin in the future since it doesn’t incur shipping and handling costs.

“We only have really begun seriously selling e-books this last year. We sold about $38,000 worth of e-books, which is a significant number. In the past we sold maybe 15 to 20 a year,” Godwin said. “It is something that’s gaining some traction in the marketplace and typically e-books have an even lower price point, or close to the lowest price point, for rentals.”

Even with everything the bookstore is doing to compensate, sales keep going down, and not just because of competition from online retailers.

 

 

Students and faculty look elsewhere

Sophomore Grace DeMeurisse opted not to use the bookstore for most of her books this summer.

“For my four-week intensives, I bought [my books] off of Amazon,” DeMeurisse said.

She said purchased a required book from the bookstore for the abroad portion of her Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages practicum, where she would learn how to teach English language learners in Mexico.

Godwin said some courses, like English 101, are moving away from required course materials, meaning a lost opportunity in sales for the bookstore.

Lisa Perdue, a Western English as a Second Language instructor, said that as a recent student herself, she has noticed professors are more and more understanding of how expensive textbooks can be and offer students supplemental materials. She said she has also seen more professors who suggest using the library’s course reserves to their students recently.

At the Wilson Library, temporary library archives paraprofessional Sloane Ralston said students use course reserves as a resource frequently because they don’t want to buy an expensive textbook. She said some copies get stolen by students too, which they find out about when the books are taken off reserve for a class.

“One of the things that has happened in the past is there’s a particular professor who likes to put not only the required material for his courses on reserve, but a lot of supplemental material,” Ralston said.

Ralston said from what she has seen, professors don’t put enough required books on reserve to cover all of their students.

“I’ve never seen one book per student in course reserves. I’ve seen close, maybe 50 percent of a [20 to 25 student] class, if that’s the class size,” she said.

Perdue said that rather than throwing a textbook at her students in her three-week-long summer classes, they do more hands-on activities compared to courses during the rest of the academic year and will use games, photos and PowerPoint slides.

ESL classes are moving away from textbooks, Perdue said, but it depends on how strict the incoming program director is, for example, where some directors are more hard-set on having their students work out of a book than others.

“Our teachers here find it frustrating because the textbook is so rigid. You don’t get the same fluidity you want in an ESL classroom,” Perdue said.

Update: The original article said data about average student enrollment was from the Office of Admissions. It has been corrected to Western’s Office of Institutional Research.

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