Based on a financial analysis, NACS recently found Three Rivers College Bookstore to be three times more profitable as a percentage than the average community college bookstore; Bob Jansen, Executive Director of Retail Operations, attributes a big part of that achievement to the store’s rental program.
Their serialized program rents 10,000 books each semester, accounting for approximately 65% of the store’s volume, and, as a result, saves each student an average of $222 each semester, compared to the used book price.
Even with its profitability and widespread adoption, however, the rental program has presented some challenges. Despite several different strategies to communicate with both faculty and students, Jansen realized that the biggest obstacle the program faced was returns.
“Returns have always been a major challenge for our store and we’ve been sitting on a total of about $200,000 in the cost of unreturned rental books at new retail price and added fines each fiscal year,” he explained. “Thankfully, we’re able to make that money up through fines and charges to student accounts, which actually becomes a revenue stream, but that’s a stream we would rather not have because our goal is always to save students money.”
However, rather than rest on his laurels, Jansen decided to tackle the issue head on by raising awareness. Taking a different approach, he laid out all the facts of the program to students, faculty, and staff in a new promotion.
He began the initiative at the start of buyback with an email that listed significant statistics about the rental program’s benefits. For instance, he calculated the average dollar amount the program saves students, the average cost of a rental price compared to new and the average number of rentals per student, all using reports from the MBS system.
Then, he explained the fee structure that accompanies the rental program and how it is affected by books that never get returned.
“The only way for us to take control of the issue is to make everyone aware of the facts,” he said. “So many students see fines as a punitive action taken against them but, in reality, ours are based on sound business practices. It’s important to explain the logic behind policies and procedures so that students better understand how they work and why they’re in place.”
Finally, at the end of the email, he issued a challenge.
“I told students the total number of outstanding rentals as of that morning, which was 8,653 books that were among 3,024 students at a new retail value of $1,242,541. Then, I asked them to guess how many would still be missing by the rental deadline,” he described. “The person who got the closest to the actual number on the day of the deadline, which was at the end of our buy, would receive a $100 gift certificate to the store; it was a way to better explain the issue while increasing the interaction between store and student.”
With 296 total entries, the store was so impressed with the participation that they decided to award the three students who were closest to the correct answer, rather than just one.
To announce the winners, Jansen again emailed the entire campus, including faculty and staff, to address the issue of unreturned books. At that time, the store had 1,330 outstanding rentals among 609 students, which was about 15% less than when they sent out the contest announcement. He wanted to ensure they each understood the fiscal impact of that quantity.
“I calculated how much those books would potentially cost us, based on the new book price, and tried to put that number into perspective,” he explained. “I related the cost to things students would find significant. The nearly $192,799 that those 1,330 books amount to could pay the tuition of 214 full-time students, buy a nice house, or purchase eight new automobiles; those figures are staggering.”
Jansen finally told students that the deadline for rental returns had been extended and encouraged them to bring in their books, while reinforcing the consequences of an outstanding rental. Since the deadline, students have continued to return their rental books and the store ended May with 865 outstanding from Spring Semester.
“Communication is vital,” he said. “At the end of the day, we want that book back because it is cheaper than buying a replacement, so it’s important to get that message across to students. We’ve saved students over $600,000 in Spring Semester alone through our program and we want that number to continue to grow; educating students on how they can help the process is essential.”
Because the store places such an emphasis on communication, Jansen and his staff have no problem enforcing fees when the time comes.
“At that point, it’s their decision,” he said. “Our program makes rental the cheapest way for students to get their textbooks if they follow the rules or the most expensive if they choose not to.”
Although the promotion didn’t affect the total amount of returns by the deadline this year, Jansen is confident that it had a positive impact on awareness.
“I think it helped quite a bit in informing the campus community not only of the challenges of rental but also of the benefits,” he said. “It takes time to change behavior, so I’m interested to see what happens next semester.”
As for the future, he plans to continue promoting student awareness, while improving his rental program and store to meet the evolving needs of students.
To others who hope to do the same, Jansen has one piece of advice:
“Don’t just provide benefits to students and expect them to notice; tell them about all that you’re doing!” he suggested. “At the end of the day, they will perceive online marketplaces to be cheaper, even if they aren’t. Educate them on your store’s options and calculate just how much they are saving by shopping with you. It can really make the difference!”