COVID-19 has changed the way college stores across the nation operate. Adapting to current conditions and new restrictions, college stores have found ways to work within this new normal. Southeast Technical College Bookstore has taken the challenges they face and used them to improve customer service and add more convenient options for students. Bookstore Manager Jason Skiff recently spoke with us about the changes the store has made to prepare for fall.
After the pandemic started, business as usual changed. Mr. Skiff and the bookstore staff had to evaluate how it would impact normal bookstore functions.
“We’ve had to rethink what our business plan is and how we do things and adapt future plans. The pandemic is obviously not over, and it has its own timetable,” Skiff said. “We have to adapt and adjust to it. We’re taking one day at a time, basically. We’re trying to be very adaptive to the needs of the campus and to the needs of our students. COVID-19 has affected our store greatly. It’s a whole different world now.”
The store began to work on a plan that would help them adapt as situations changed. To begin with, no one was certain how long the bookstore would be closed to students, but as the first month passed by, it became clear that the store would need to look more toward long-term solutions.
“For the first stage of planning, we didn’t know how long we would be out. Being in the middle of the semester, there wasn’t too much to worry about missing. The next month came around, and we were like ‘Okay, better start planning.’ Summer term was approaching. If we weren’t going back, we needed plans for rental returns, buyback and how to sell summer books. That’s where my planning really started,” Mr. Skiff said. “That was the second phase. We had to ask ourselves how we were going to end the semester. There are a lot of things we do in the bookstore at the end of the semester. With rental returns, buyback, summer term almost immediately, we were trying to figure all of that out. I made plans to get rental returns back by mail, and we did a virtual buyback. We also began enhancing our online bookstore for summer course materials.”
Effective student communication
Early on, finding effective ways to communicate with students became a priority for the store. It was vital to ensure students understood how to return or sell back their books and get what they needed for summer term.
“Communicating more with students is probably one of the biggest things for our store. We have always communicated with students, but it’s more important now. We are more connected with them. Throughout the end of the semester, I was communicating two to three times a week with them. I would let them know things like this is how we are going to handle rental returns. This is how we will handle buyback. This is how you are going to get your summer course materials. We needed to make sure the scholarship students understood how they would get their materials. The need for strong communication trickled down into every little department,” Skiff said. “We have been doing direct email and social media. I am fortunate enough to work directly with a great marketing department who handles all of our social media posts. We post up on our website as much as we can. At this point, we are not able to text students, so email is really our primary form of communication. We try to be as clear and concise as possible. We found that it is important not to just send out a single email message with the hope that everyone will read it. We follow up on that initial email and keep following up. We wanted to make sure as many students as possible understood. We had our struggles, but the overall outcome was really well received. Students were really appreciative of the communication.”
Reconfigure the campus store space
The next step the store took was to look at the layout and make a plan for fall that would allow for social distancing and keep students and employees safe.
“I had some funding sitting by for a rainy day. I always wanted to reconfigure our point-of-sale cash wrap area. I decided that the best route to protect our employees and students was to do counter service for textbooks. We are closing off the textbook area and moving four cash registers over there and installing plexiglass. We are also reconfiguring the floor space to allow for social distancing and make space for lines in the store. Students will be safe. We will be safe. And, we are providing that extra service for the students,” Skiff said. “I like the new configuration of the store. Now students can just walk up say ‘I need my books,’ and we are going to pick them and ring them up right at the point-of-sale registers. We are also enhancing our online and pickup services. We will encourage students to order online books all summer long. They can either pick them up or have them shipped — we are offering free shipping this summer. Providing free shipping for students felt necessary. We might take a little hit on margin, but it is well worth it in the customer service aspect. Students appreciate it and it shows in sales. My summer sales are actually up when it comes to textbooks.”
Offer students convenient options
Coming into fall, the Southeast Technical Bookstore is prepared to offer students convenient options that will help set the store apart from the competition.
“We will offer a form of free shipping, curbside assistance and in-store pickup. We are going to add all of these extra services so students can choose what level of interaction they are comfortable with. They can come into the store to get their books directly, have them delivered to their home, order and pickup the books, or drive up and have us bring them out. I think the variety of services will be well received by students,” Skiff said. “It’s really all about convenience. This whole situation has evolved the services we offer. Before this happened, I wasn’t thinking about curbside service at all. I mean we would offer it if a student asked. There were times when I would have students come in and be like ‘hey, can I just pull around back and we can load up my truck.’ That sort of thing. So, we are adapting. I think if anything comes out of this, it will be a new standard of customer service. Bookstores have always been adaptive. We have gone through a lot of changes and we adapt. Also, it is a good recruitment tool. When students come to campus, they can be rest assured that we have services that will help them along the way.”
One service the bookstore has always provided the campus community is selling scrubs and uniforms. Students would come into the store, use the dressing room to try on uniforms or scrubs and then the store would place an order. Mr. Skiff has also worked to streamline this process.
“About two years ago, I saw we had a need for an online scrub store. We were teaching a lot of remote LPN programs across the state of South Dakota. So, I started developing that service a couple years ago. When all of this happened, I already had that in place. With COVID-19, I started thinking about the dressing room. It wasn’t going to be a good environment. Do we want hundreds of students in and out of that fitting room? We were going to have to do it differently,” Skiff said. “We provide uniforms to students and faculty for over 17 programs from scrubs to law enforcement to shop shirts. We decided to make it all a little more friendly to our students and take out the middleman. They don’t have to come here and try the scrubs on. I am working with our vendor on setting up a site and adding in all of the options they could get in the store. Students will go online to our scrub and uniform site, order the uniform and have it direct shipped. We are paying for the shipping for that as well. It is another added service utilizing our current vendor. We also worked out a system for how this can still work for scholarship students, because the majority of our students have scholarships. This will help eliminate that rush of students to the store all at once, and it increases convenience and improves our customer service. We would love to see students in the store, but right now, that isn’t the best option. This online store will provide a lot of benefits to us and the students.”
Get involved with the campus community
Mr. Skiff has joined his campus COVID-19 task force, deciding how they can safely reopen the campus to students. He suggests that stores looking to reopen this fall try to stay a step ahead of this by thinking through store traffic patterns, providing the necessary protections for students and staff, looking for ways to better communicate with students and looking into the regional and national resources that might be available to you.
“We’re going to have a mask requirement or recommendation on campus. Staff and the students will all get a free mask, and I am also working on getting some hand sanitizer samples. I have been ordering the PPE equipment for the campus. We will have disposable masks at all of the entrances in case someone forgets a mask. Masks will be readily available everywhere to make sure everyone is safe and comfortable in the environment. It’s a key component to make sure we have a safe environment for everyone,” Skiff said. “We’re a hands-on college. We have a lot of trades here. We need in-person classes. How do you teach online welding? Online plumbing or HVAC? Finding ways to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible is our top priority.”