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MBS Solutions Series: 'Bricks' Still Strong in a 'Clicks' World

Posted by Stephanie Kubas on 7/10/11 11:00 PM
Topics: college retail, MBS Solutions Series, CAMEX

In the article

'Bricks' Still Strong in a 'Clicks' World published in NACS' June 17 edition of the Campus Marketplace e-newsletter by Michael von Glahn, Editor of The College Store magazine, CAMEX attendees identified a list of both positive and negative issues affecting the collegiate retail industry.

Expanding on these ideas, MBS brings you a week-long series addressing several of these concerns and providing solutions as to how your store can enhance key strengths, minimize weaknesses, take advantage of opportunities, and reposition possible threats.

“The Internet has changed the face of retailing forever—and that’s probably an understatement,” said Glenn Cook, CEO, Skor Sports Inc., one of the presenters of the CAMEX 2011 session Bricks ’n’ Clicks: Cultivating Profits and Incremental Sales Through E-Commerce.

Students’ online purchasing of required course materials increased from 2% in 2005 to 45% in 2009, and Cook—who visited more than 300 stores in the course of the past year—sees the same trend in sales of logo campus apparel.

“The Internet has really opened things up,” agreed co-presenter John Wittman, vice president and general manager, Baker & Taylor/Majors Education Solutions.

To get everyone on the same page, Cook and Wittman led their audience through an impromptu SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis on the college store industry. Here’s what the attendees identified:


  • Location on campus/convenience
  • Connection with the college or university
  • Knowledge of the customer
  • Experience
  • Accurate course information
  • In-person customer service
  • Ease of use of a bricks-and-mortar store
  • Faculty relations
  • Access to financial aid
  • Limited demographics
  • The speed-to-market of innovation
  • Staff stretched thin
  • Price
  • Public relations/perception
  • Technology/tools
  • Space
  • Faculty relations
  • Budget restrictions
  • Publisher relationships


  • E-commerce
  • Can connect to campus micromarket
  • Alumni
  • Chance to expand market
  • Incremental business
  • Disclosure/transparency
  • Campus and internal networking
  • Mobile commerce
  • Branding
  • Access to students
  • Availability of immediate credit/resolution for returns
  • Role as problem-solvers


  • Publishers selling direct to students
  • Online competition (primarily from Amazon, eBay, and
  • Easy entry to market
  • Administration (either by outsourcing operation or by not providing the necessary resources to fulfill the store’s assigned mission)
  • Faculty
  • The economy
  • Overhead costs
  • Textbook rental companies that circumvent the store
  • Open-source course materials
  • Suppliers (“My business is only as good as your business,” as one attendee put it.)

Wittman observed that some items on the threat list could really represent new opportunities. “You need to think of things just that way,” he urged.

In his book, success shouldn’t be measured by income. “Success is customer satisfaction,” said Wittman, citing studies that indicate when a retailer does something right, only one out of 10 customers will acknowledge it, whereas if you do something wrong, all 10 customers will let you know about it. “And if they’re willing to talk to you about it, they’re going to talk to everybody else about it,” he noted.

“Your consumers are surrounded by choice. I love your industry because it’s so fraught with competition. I’ve never seen a group of retailers under such competitive threat. The very people that come and shop at your stores are your competitors.”

Despite that, Wittman said he believes college bookstores have one advantage that no online competitor can overcome. “It’s huge and I just don’t think we realize and market how huge that is,” he said.

While many college stores have an e-commerce solution that provides consumers the ability to buy online, with the accompanying convenience and affordability, having a physical store as well means the customer can come in to return an item in person if it doesn’t fit, if they drop the class, or if they purchased it by mistake—an amenity no e-tailer can offer.

“That’s huge,” Wittman reiterated.

He then returned to the fact that the audience’s SWOT analysis had suggested a fixed retail audience represented a weakness for college stores. “What if I told you that’s one of your greatest assets?” he asked. “Because you have this extraordinarily well-defined consumer.”

A college store doesn’t need to sell to everyone to succeed, only to a fixed micromarket of students, alumni, faculty, and staff, all of whom share with the store a connection to the institution. And even though some may have to work under restrictions about e-mailing students, college stores’ presence on campus means they have a much easier time reaching all of their constituents than a national or international e-tailer does.

Still, cautioned Wittman, “There are no silver bullets. It’s a lot of hard work and you’ve got to touch people multiple ways.”

You also have to touch them multiple times. He indicated that, according to a study by Proctor & Gamble, a store or brand has to touch a consumer 7.2 times to own that consumer’s perception of its brand or product.

“You have to touch with the right message and with the right price,” he said. For instance, if you sell online, are your students saving money there? E-tailers have fostered an expectation among consumers that they will save money when buying online. Wittman suggested adopting a dual price-point strategy, with lower prices for those who buy from you online.

Also, don’t think the big e-tailers are all actually socking away huge profits. “What you’re going to find is that your competitors—these huge competitors that do it extraordinarily well—at the end of the day, if they’re making 2% they’re doing really well,” said Wittman, who projected income statements from Borders, Barnes & Noble, and other companies to illustrate his point.

In the end, he left attendees with three strong recommendations:

  1. Outsource wherever you can to drive down costs.
  2. Reach your consumer in every way possible with a consistent message about your strengths.
  3. Have a marketing plan that not only promotes your products online, but brings people into the store.
— Michael von Glahn, Editor of The College Store magazine
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Check back tomorrow as we show you how to further enhance your store’s key strengths to become an even better retailer!

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