To improve the experience in your store, it takes more than knowledgeable, helpful employees. You also need a college store management system that will help you avoid retail pitfalls like long, slow-moving lines, websites that aren’t optimized for mobile and not keeping up with student buying trends. So, what should your college store look for in a retail system?
We recently sat down with Senior Systems Sales Consultant Rick Curtis to discuss the college retail industry changes, how college stores meet new industry challenges and how technology innovation has helped streamline processes for independent college stores.
How has collegiate retail changed?
In the last 10 years, online competitors like Amazon have really changed the face of retail. It used to be when you ordered something online, it would take weeks to get it. But as shipping times get shorter, online retail has become a part of everyday life. Because of that, it has changed what customers expect from their retail experience.
Today’s customers expect a very streamlined in-store and online experience with the campus bookstore. However, that’s true for all retail, not just campus stores. What really sets collegiate retail apart is that they deal with more than GM. As the educational industry evolves, new course material distribution methods and course material formats are constantly introduced, often requiring stores to make changes to stay relevant. Now stores handle digital books, digital homework, digital tests, inclusive access, dual enrollments, rentals and in general, a very diverse product mix that is determined by the materials faculty adopt.
What opportunities do college stores have to stand apart?
I see college stores across the country leveraging their strengths in new and unique ways. One of the strongest advantages institutional stores have is their location. Being on-campus with students day-in and day-out is a huge advantage. No matter how fast online shipping becomes, it will always be faster to pop into the store and grab what you need. However, that also requires stores to streamline the in-store experience as much as possible with frictionless checkout and outstanding service.
Another advantage college stores have is the relationship they can build with faculty. Faculty and college stores want the same things. Both groups want students to have their books for class. Both groups want to protect students from fraud. And ultimately, both groups want students to succeed. Forming strong alliances with faculty and administration helps drive students to your store rather than online.
Other advantages that come to mind are: the ability to link the adopted text in the campus system to your online shopping cart, the ability for students to use SFA funds to make purchases, outstanding customer service, loyalty programs, and creating a space within your store where students feel welcome to hang out while grabbing a snack or coffee.
How have customer expectations evolved with technology?
When you look for something online, there are options — a lot of options. Customers come into brick-and-mortar stores with that same expectation. They want to see a diverse selection of the merchandise. They also expect to easily find what they are looking for or get immediate help finding that item. Even more than this, students are looking for that blended omnichannel experience. What that means is they want the store and website to blend together into a seamless experience. That might mean, they order something online, then stop by the store to pick it up. Or that might mean, they go on your website to read product reviews or compare prices while standing inside your store considering whether to make a purchase.
How have college store management systems changed?
Everything is more connected now. So, as the industry evolves and becomes increasingly complicated, the college store system must also evolve to help stores streamline back-office functions. From SFA to alerts, today’s systems make it easier to manage all the various functions performed by store personnel.
Current systems are also faster, more reliable and offer stores more of the options they need. For example, with Arc Mobile, back-office tasks are mobile. They can easily streamline inventory and look up student financial aid information. With a product like inSite, stores can manage and strengthen their omnichannel presence. From your store’s eCommerce site to social media, it can all be managed and monitored.
Why is it important to keep your college store management system up to date?
In today’s retail world, there really isn’t a choice to not stay current. To maintain PCI compliance, your system has to keep security up to date. A system that accepts new payment methods like EMV, Apple Pay, Android Pay or other NFC technology is necessary to ensure you don’t miss out on sales. A system that supports the expanding the course material options available to students helps you maintain market share. A system that streamlines inclusive access will help keep your store in campus conversations about student affordability. And, a system that provides actionable data and business intelligence will give you the information you need to determine customer buying trends and let you offer a more targeted merchandise selection.
How can today’s independent college stores better compete with online retail giants?
Gorillas can’t swim – so take them to your pool. What I mean by that is really utilize your strengths as an integrated part of the campus community. These retail giants can’t compete like that.
- Link to your store from the schedule – Campus integrations make it easy for students to get their materials from you. Convenience is an essential offering in today’s retail environment.
- Get early adoptions and more used books – This goes to giving students what they want. Student prefer used books. They like to hold the book in their hands, but they need the cost savings. Make it easy for faculty to submit adoptions and work to build relationships that can help educate faculty and administrators why early adoptions are important not just to the campus store but also to students. Then use tools like SimpleSource for your wantlist to maximize your number of used books.
- Price match – It is a simple thing that builds a lot of trust with students. With price matching, get students to go to your website first, rather than to online competitors. This simple offer let’s students know that they don’t have to go anywhere else to get competitive prices.
- SFA online and in-store – Student financial aid is one of the strongest differentiators a campus store has. Through you, all students have equal access to the materials they need to do well in class — and the most tender options available.
- Delivery and pick-up options – This goes back to enhancing student convenience. By offering students delivery and pick-up options for their course materials, you preemptively eliminate the need for students to visit other online retailers.
- Easy returns – One of the weakest points of online shopping is the hassle of returning an item. Your store can counteract that by accepting and streamlining the returns process.
- Sense of community – You are a part of the campus community. You can enhance that sense of community in your store and invite students to make your store a regular part of their day.
What tips would you give college stores shopping for a new system?
Start with defining what’s most important. What does your store need most right in this moment? Then, once that is defined, look toward the future. What do you want to accomplish in the next year, the next five or ten years? Also, consider training. Training is an essential part of any system. With a new system, not only do you need to catch up quickly, but at some point, there will be inevitably be turnover. How will you continue to ensure all of your employees stay up to date on the system and any new developments?
Then there is the very practical side of things. You will need to make sure the new system fits your specific business. It will need to cover all the bases: technology, services, course materials, business intelligence, support, financial reporting, etc.
Finally, I would recommend evaluating the system’s adaptability. The industry will keep changing and technology will keep evolving. You need a system that will help you keep pace with those changes and a stable provider with a proven track record.