Panola College Store Director Rebecca Courtney has a proven retail strategy: She listens and learns. She wants to ensure the college store serves as what she calls “a one-stop shop” for the 2,500 students at the Carthage, Texas community college. It offers everything from textbooks and pens to cappuccinos and keychains, but Courtney hasn’t stopped there. She maintains an ongoing dialog with customers that keeps her informed about students’ wishes.
Whether students’ desires are big or small, Courtney deems them all important. The store added extra-large backpacks to its stock, because nursing students voiced a need for them. The students had separate sets of books for lectures and clinicals on consecutive days and wanted a way to carry them together.
“They said, ‘Man, I really wish I had something I could carry these in because just a regular backpack won’t hold it all.’ So, we got rolling backpacks that are bigger for them, and we also got a rolling cart that’s new this fall,” said Courtney.
When the store is slow — especially during the summer — Courtney takes the opportunity to chat with customers at the register. One day, she discovered a student looking for cough drops. She immediately started stocking them.
“I’ve always got somebody at the front counter,” she said. “They always speak and they ask for something. ‘Hey, do you all have this?’ I just had somebody ask for cough drops and I thought, ‘Oh! I never thought about that. That’s awesome.’ So, now we have them. We had other kinds of medicine but we didn’t have that.”
Sometimes fulfilling student needs means seeking out partnerships. The school has a large health sciences program, which requires students to buy scrubs at the start of each term. So, the college store teamed up with a local scrub company that can fulfill even the most particular requirements.
“They have literally everything they could possibly need. We make sure they have the colors they need. Different programs want a certain color. Some want a certain color and a certain brand. So, we make sure they can purchase all that through us, which means they can use their financial aid. They can use their scholarship. They can use cash, financial aid, credit card, anything.”
Buyback is also critical time for gleaning insight from students. Courtney said she always asks students whether they used their textbooks. If they say they didn’t, she inquires further.
“I hate to say it, but sometimes they just don’t tell the truth. So, when they say they don’t use it, I’m like, ‘Okay now, are you sure you don’t use it because I’ve talked to several people in that class …’ And they say, ‘Well, I probably should have used it.’”
During one buyback conversation, Courtney discovered that a welding student had struggled to pay for a required kit while waiting for a financial aid reimbursement from a textbook purchase. The college store hadn’t stocked kits, so the student had been unable to purchase the material along with her text. Courtney immediately found a way for the bookstore to stock kits.
“We reached out to Lowes over the summer and we have a brand-new welding kit, which is basically everything a first-time student will need. By partnering with them and buying everything that we bought, they gave it to us for a discount. So, if a student went into Lowes, they couldn’t buy it for what we’re selling it for. I’m very excited about that.”
Courtney’s conversations with students have also shown her the importance of educating them about course materials purchases. When new students stop in the store during Panola College orientation, Courtney explains how access codes work. She’s learned that students can find themselves in a terrible situation when they purchase access codes from off-campus dealers. So, she warns them not to buy from sketchy sources — even if it looks like they might get a good deal.
“The reason we do that is because I’ve literally had students in my office, bawling, crying, because they thought they were saving money, ordered it online and then it didn’t work, and now they’re having to pay a second time for the access code and they don’t have it. They don’t have that money. It’s just not a good situation for anybody.”
Sometimes students end up in a bad situation when they purchase a book from a friend or neighbor, only to discover that the edition is wrong or that the professor has changed publishers.
“They have a good heart. They’re thinking, I want to save a little money. I’ll buy this from somebody I know. But then it doesn’t really work out like that,” she said.
Listening to students and learning about their needs: Courtney’s simple strategy has made Panola College Store a campus destination.