The University of Maryland Baltimore County Bookstore finds new ways to engage customers. Knowing the industry is changing, and students have more options, UMBC Bookstore Director Bob Somers challenges his team to think outside the box and keep customers coming through the doors.Somers has been in the course materials industry for more than 40 years. Known as “Bookstore Bob,” his face has become synonymous with the UMBC Bookstore and the fun within the walls.
"There is a cardboard cut-out of me welcoming people to the store," Somers said. "When we ask people what they think when they see my face all over campus, they think ‘something cool is happening at the bookstore.'"
The store team is fully engaged in the daily operations of the store, and some of the promotional ideas come from the staff.
"In the winter we have a snow day promotion," Somers said. "We give one percent off online purchases for every inch of snow, up to 20 inches."
The UMBC Bookstore also put their unique twist on March basketball tournaments with Merch Mania Madness. Yum Shoppe, the store's convenience store, creates a bracket placing Milky Way versus Baby Ruth. Students vote hoping to see an outrageous final competition.
For spring, the store hosts an annual Spring Egg Hunt.
"We close the store briefly so we can hide about 40 plastic eggs throughout the store," Somers said. "When we reopen there is often a line of more than 30 people."
Each egg has a coupon for free merchandise, and one contains $200.
Erin McGonigle, the UMBC Bookstore marketing manager, came up with the idea for the Easter egg hunt, now going into its third year. She said social media is a major factor in their student engagement plan.
"Instagram and Twitter have our heaviest followers," McGonigle said. "We have some engagement with Facebook, mostly faculty and staff."
Times have changed
The commons area where the bookstore is located used to be the hub of campus activity — not anymore.
"It's like a morgue now," Somers said. "We've had to find ways to stay ahead. If a student is going to know about something, we better know about it first."
Knowing the needs of the students and keeping honest relationships has kept students going to their bookstore as opposed to shopping at a big-box retailer or online.
"If a student needs a single item, and they are honest about coming in to get it when it arrives, we will get it for them," Somers said.
History speaks volumes
The UMBC Bookstore opened in 1966, and to celebrate more than 50 years in business, the Yum Shoppe offered a special for for freshman fall move-in day. Prices for canned soda, chips and candy bars were reduced to what they were in 1966. The Monday after Thanksgiving, a holiday countdown sale begins with merchandise 30% off. The next day discounts drop to 29% and so on until Christmas.
"It's been incredibly successful," Somers said.
The success and longevity of the store go deeper than prices and events. The people within the walls make the difference. Somers has attracted like-minded individuals to his team and turnover is low offering customers knowledge when purchasing anything for class.
"The average length of service here is 20 years," Somers said. "Everyone actually cares about everyone else in the store."