Located just north of downtown Seattle, University Book Store at the University of Washington is a college store that knows its books. Unlike many others in the industry, however, their course material sales make up a relatively small percentage of their gross sales. That’s because the UW Book Store has established a general book department that engages UW students, faculty and staff as well as customers from surrounding communities.
In fact, with over 160,000 unique trade titles in stock, the store has been recognized as one of the nation’s leading independent booksellers. So, in a culture where print sales are estimated to be declining, how has the store maintained such success in their trade book department? Easy, answers Chief Executive Officer Bryan Pearce.
“As any successful independent company would do, we’re always looking at what differentiates us from the competition,” he explained. “Over the years, we’ve continually evolved those strengths to ensure they meet changing customer demands.”
As part of that process, the store prides itself on offering an extensive variety of services that simply can’t be found elsewhere in the area. For instance, UW Book Store offers a used trade book program that’s incredibly popular among the area’s dedicated readers.
With assistance from Powell’s Bookstore, one of the largest independent new and used bookstore chains in the world, UW Book Store established a trade book buyback program five years ago. The ongoing partnership with Powell’s has facilitated a robust used book buying and selling environment unmatched by any Seattle area bookseller, chain or independent.
“Offering a robust trade selection enhances the educational support we provide to our campus through our course materials services and also adds significant entertainment value,” Pearce said. “Our partnership with Powell’s has allowed us to further tailor our inventory to be that much more unique in terms of the titles we offer our customers.”
Comparing its used book selection to a treasure hunt, Pearce says that the store’s customers enjoy coming in often and searching through the new additions to the inventory.
“We have a huge bargain book selection as well,” he added. “By offering a diverse selection and variety of price points, we’re able to be attractive to different customer demographics.”
The store’s used book program doesn’t just benefit customers, though.
“Our used trade books also provide a much higher profit margin potential for the store, which helps cushion the decline in margin from new trade book sales,” explained Pearce.
As another unique selling point, the store boasts longstanding, experienced ‘booksellers’ who provide individualized recommendations and service to each customer.
“We’re fortunate in that most of our full-time employees have been with the company for over 20 years, so they’ve forged strong customer relationships and understand the community’s tastes and preferences,” he said. “We’re then able to leverage that expertise to enhance each person’s experience at the store.”
When it comes to hiring new employees, however, Pearce takes a different approach. “We don’t seek out individuals who just love to read, because that’s not the only aspect of being a bookseller,” he explained. “Instead, we look for people who are enthusiastic and personable with naturally interactive, appealing personalities, and then mentor them to become great booksellers. It might seem counterintuitive, but it works!”
Access to this expertise isn’t limited to customers who step into the store, either. Because the store incorporated an ‘Ask a Bookseller’ feature into their website, readers have 24/7 access to the information they need, by simply filling out a form or calling in.
“We’ve had great success with our online business, so it was important to us to strive to offer the same level of service available in the store on our web site as well,” he added.
Even those visitors who don’t have a specific question in mind can benefit from the store’s knowledgeable staff.
“We frequently highlight our booksellers’ top picks both on our website and in the stores to extend a selection of new titles or authors to try out,” Pearce described. “Our customers really enjoy it and many rely on us to find their next great read! It keeps customers coming back.”
Along with these everyday services, the store often hosts special events to further engage with their customer base.
“We host over 450 author events annually at a number of venues throughout the Puget Sound area,” he said. “We attract a wide variety of new, established and celebrity authors. In November, for example, we had signing events with Andrew Feinstein, Tom Brokaw, David Guterson, Chris Matthews, Neil Gaiman, and Mindy Kaling, who stars as Kelly on NBC’s The Office! Presidents Clinton and Carter also visited our store for book signing events recently.”
The store also holds book club meetings and invites children in for kid’s reading events several times a month.
“Our goal is to be a resource to the entire community,” Pearce said.
Although these special services are staples at the UW Book Store, they have integrated several new technologies into their offerings, as well.
“We want to provide our customers with whatever format they prefer to have the most enjoyable reading experience, so we’ve been adding more and more digital titles to our trade and course book selection,” he explained. “We also recently added an Espresso Book Machine (EBM), which allows us to print certain titles on demand and provide self-publishing services.”
Opening up their true inventory to nearly 3 million titles via the Google database, the store has tied the machine into more than just trade books with the ability to print open source materials through the EBM, as well.
All in all, Pearce believes the future of independent bookselling is bright and looks forward to continued success in the future.
“I’d encourage others to do more with trade books,” he said. “It can be an incredibly difficult part of running a college store, but I always remind my peers that it’s an important part of the college experience, too. We have to be a compelling part of that and transition our businesses to evolve with the dramatic changes taking place in the industry.”