Revenue generating ideas help college stores supplement top-line revenue while expanding their customer base. Stores like the MECC (Mountain Empire Community College) Bookstore in Virginia have proactively worked to take on additional services and create new ways to bring customers into the store. We sat down with MECC Bookstore Manager Dora Hill to discuss the challenges her store faces and how she is working to overcome them.
Please tell us about your campus store and the challenges it faces.
Our campus store, known as MECC Bookstore, serves Mountain Empire Community College, one of 23 community colleges in the Virginia Community College System (VCCS). As a comprehensive two-year college located in the southwestern portion of Virginia (we like to say down in the peak of the state), Mountain Empire Community College, serves between 3,500 and 4,000 students annually. Because of the rural location, the collapse of the coal mining industry has had a major impact on the local economy. Mountain Empire Community College is recognized as a leader within the community for preparing the region’s educated workforce — which also assists in improving the local economy.
MECC Bookstore is only one of two college bookstores in the VCCS that is still institutionally owned. We work hard to provide our diverse student population with the affordable educational materials they need to succeed. As most stores in the industry can attest, this has not been without its challenges. The biggest challenge we currently face is OER. Mountain Empire Community College received a grant from the education reform group Achieving the Dream, which allows the college to cover the cost of transitioning from textbooks to OER. Since the implementation of this program, we have removed 32 feet of textbook shelving with more probably to come.
The other major challenge we face is a policy change that prevents students from using financial aid funds to purchase apparel. This was a big percentage of our profit sales, and we had to eliminate most of the clothing we carried. We are currently working on options that would allow us to provide clothing on a more “on-demand” basis.
How has your store worked to overcome these challenges?
I knew we needed to look at transitioning from a traditional textbook store to one that provided more services. I thought if we could provide more necessary services, we could make ourselves more valuable to the college.
I was first approached to work with the Wampler Library on campus and the Wise County Historical Society to sell local history and family genealogy books. Wampler Library houses the manuscripts. For those titles that the authors have contracted with us, our campus print shop prints the titles and we sell them. We pay the print shop for the expenses, we pay royalties to the authors and we share the profits with the Wise County Historical Society. The program has brought a lot of community traffic into the store that we normally would not get.
Next, I was asked if we could take over the ordering and selling of the Home Craft Day’s apparel — a huge community event the college hosts every year. The first year we did it, we only sold apparel as the college had done in the past. The next year we expanded to other giftware items, which the event crowd really liked. We made them with the event logo, but did not date them, so we could ensure sell-through.
I had also been percolating on some other ideas, so I checked if I could make those ideas plausible. I wanted to offer an IT help desk to help students with their laptop and tablet issues. The IT department actually beat me to the punch on that idea and had set up a help desk on campus. However, their location was not well traveled, so I approached the IT director about moving it into the bookstore. He loved the idea, so they moved it, and best of all, they man it. This brought more traffic into our store, without additional payroll. As a bonus, we set them up beside the computer products we sell, so if a student’s laptop/tablet isn’t repairable, the help desk staff can show them what we have available.
I also approached college leadership about the bookstore making the student and employee IDs. This brings every student and new employee into the bookstore, where we could provide the type of service that would make them want to come back. It took a couple of years for this transition to happen. It finally occurred when the software needed to be updated. It was the perfect opportunity for us to take over the service.
Shortly after we started making the campus IDs, I was approached by the Business Office about taking over the student parking passes as well. Never one to turn down an opportunity to make us more valuable to the campus, I agreed. This has allowed us to serve as a one-stop shop for incoming students, which coincides with the “One-Stop Shop” the Financial Aid, Enrollment Services, and Student Services offices provide all incoming freshmen.
However, the most effective endeavor that we implemented was the food service business on campus. The college always leased the food service space. However, when the last vendor left and the college put it out for bid, they did not get many offers. One of the deans on campus asked me why we didn’t put in a bid for it, so after getting my staff’s buy-in, I drafted a proposal and the rest, as they say, is history. The Red Fox Grill is now under the umbrella of MECC Bookstore and seems to have cinched our value to the campus.
How do you manage the additional workload?
As mentioned before, the help desk is manned by the IT department. As for all the other services, my staff could easily absorb those duties since they had less to do with processing textbooks and apparel. This really gave them something to do and in essence saved their jobs. With The Red Fox Grill, we promoted one of our staff members to supervise the operations and then hired three part-timers to staff it.
With the new services, what was the biggest challenge and how did your store overcome it?
By far, getting the grill up and running was the most challenging. There were so many hurdles to overcome, such as dealing with state contracts, getting ServSafe® training for the staff and even just getting people hired. I think we overcame it through perseverance. I knew this was important to us, the students and the campus, so I made a game plan and tweaked it where necessary. As a matter of fact, we are still tweaking things three years later. For example, at first, we didn’t cater for on-campus events, then we did. It was way too much for our operations to handle, so we finally met in the middle and now cater only during the summer months when the business is slower.
How have the additional services benefited your campus store?
The help desk, IDs and parking passes bring more foot traffic to the store. The historical books bring in community traffic. It is up to us then to provide an excellent customer experience so customers will return. Also, making IDs have helped us sell more lanyards; especially since we merchandise them right next to the ID station. The food service provides us with more sales. However, the biggest benefit to the store is securing our place on campus.
How have these services improved your store’s relationship with students and campus?
We get to meet every student on campus and are able to build relationships with them through both the bookstore and the grill. Because we provide these services, students don’t feel like we are here “just to sell them something” or, more importantly, to “rip them off.” They get a chance to see we are here to help them succeed. The students are more appreciative of our store and are more positive now when they do purchase any textbooks or supplies.
Across the campus, we have received so much support for taking on these services, especially the food service. The students appreciate that they can get good, reasonably priced food without leaving campus, which studies have shown help with retention. The campus also appreciates that new students can get most of their needs met in one location.
What advice would you give other campus stores with the opportunity to take on additional responsibility?
Take it! Just make sure to do your research and get a game plan in process before starting the project. Also, don’t wait for the opportunities to come to you; go out and find your own.
What’s next for the MECC Bookstore?
We are not stopping here. As I mentioned earlier, we are working on apparel on-demand, and I have other ideas I would like to try. Also, the college just acquired an off-site location and is working to expand on the programs offered. So, the wheels in my mind are already turning. One of those potential programs is a culinary school, so you can only imagine some of the ideas I already have.