Brown University Bookstore has always had a successful textbook department. With ample space and a dedicated staff, they’ve done everything in their power to provide students with an exemplary book buying experience. But, as the industry has evolved, they too have felt the impact of online competition and shifting student preferences.
“We’re in a challenged business and, although we were still doing well, our numbers had started trending in the wrong direction,” explained director Steve Souza. “Business was ultimately shrinking, so our resources and talent were simply being underutilized.”
Just a few blocks away, another school was suffering from the flip side of the same problem. The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Bookstore, which is within walking distance of Brown’s campus, was transitioning a new textbook buyer. They were seeing sales in their art and non-textbook items flourish, but lacked adequate space and expertise in their textbook department.
“They have an incredible facility, but their focus is really on supporting the creative geniuses that are the RISD students, as it should be,” Souza said. “They have a phenomenal art department, and that was something our store was missing.”
As a result, a partnership was developed. The two stores agreed to leverage what they were best at in each location and then share the revenue. The Rhode Island School of Design Bookstore would provide Brown University Bookstore with art department support, while Brown would become the textbook supplier for RISD students.
“It just made sense and it’s honestly been a rousing success,” he described. “It’s allowed both of us to fully utilize our staff and space to the best of our abilities.”
As with any new initiative, Souza said it took a few weeks to get the logistics ironed out. But, the partnership seemed to be a natural fit.
“Their schedule begins a few weeks after ours so we essentially have two rush periods, which makes it much easier,” he described. “Then, they have a short semester in the winter, when we have no students on campus, and Brown has a heavy presence during the summer months; it allows us to maintain steady year-round business.”
The two campuses have even arranged to have a shuttle run between them, so that RISD students who would prefer to order online, can have their textbooks delivered directly to the mailroom on their campus.
The RISD Bookstore, on the other hand, has gained the opportunity to expand Brown’s offerings by stocking top-of-the-line art supplies on their shelves.
“They’re the experts in that area, so they tell us what to stock. They know best which product lines are winners and what our students have been coming there looking for,” he explained. “Plus, we’ve even been able to carry some of RISD’s exclusive line of inks, paints, brushes and other supplies, which is great. If it has their name on it, you know it’s quality.”
Feedback from both sides has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Souza. Faculty members have expressed excitement over the partnership and customers feel the same.
“Our students absolutely love the diversity in our art section,” he said, “and RISD students have been ecstatic about the program. Because their bookstore was more focused on the arts, they weren’t necessarily as proactive about sourcing used books. We do the best we can to get as many used copies as possible, so their students have been thrilled to see the lower prices.”
RISD students have also been able to enjoy a version of rental for the past year. Brown students can rent books, in the traditional sense of the word, because they have a student account where the store can bill them. However, RISD students were limited to a “guaranteed buyback” version, as their accounts were not accessible for billing.
That will all change this semester, however, and Souza believes it will enrich the partnership that much more. Now that Brown University Bookstore has upgraded to the MBS POS, the store’s system is PCI compliant, allowing them to take a securing credit card and offer non-serialized rentals.
“We’ve definitely seen sales increase since partnering with RISD, but I think as we go forward, non-serialized rentals are where we will see the real gain,” he explained. “They should really expand our business with both student bases.”
Beyond the numbers, however, Souza feels the partnership’s most significant impact has been on his staff.
“It’s really energized them and that’s been amazing to witness,” he described. “It’s hard to be in a business when you’re not having banner years; you’re really in the trenches. This partnership was a whole new opportunity to expand our market share and gain new profits. They took on that challenge with enthusiasm and have had a lot of fun with it.”
With the stores on both sides of the agreement flourishing, Souza is now looking forward to what the future of book selling holds.
“RISD has been great to work with and we’re so lucky to have such a wonderful school so close to us,” he said. “We both wanted the partnership to work, and that was unequivocally the key to its success. Hopefully, we can keep it going and just keep building from here!”