College stores do not operate with the same goals and priorities as traditional retail stores. Where traditional retailers may seek to encourage shoppers to buy unnecessary goods and push profit margins, college stores are tasked with ensuring students have the necessary materials for class and to help provide cost savings. We spoke with Shannon Blackadder, Textbook and Trade Manager, University of Calgary Bookstore, to discuss how the store ensures students receive great services and prices.
“We operate with a very small staff in a pretty large school — we have 30,000 students. Our biggest store goal is to provide course materials to students for the best possible price,” Blackadder said. “We sell all the standard school spirit logo wear, but like most bookstores, our biggest goal is to have what the students need to be successful.”
Evolving customer service
Customers’ service expectations have evolved, changing the store’s role in the campus ecosystem.
“It’s not just about the course materials. We try to help the students find their way in learning. We have really seen with the pandemic our role change to that of a mentor. Students are a lot more stressed, and there is a lot more financial hardship. We try to help with everything that we can and meet people where they are at to provide the services they need,” Blackadder said. “For example, we have a book loan program. We will loan students all of their required books for the semester for free. To begin with, it was only offered during the fall and winter semesters. Now, we have expanded the program to run all year long. It helps relieve the financial burden on the students who need the assistance most.”
The book loan program is growing in popularity on campus and helps the store better support all students.
“We have seen a huge uptick in applications. We used to struggle to get 20 a semester and now we had 50 for the fall term. It’s important that we recognize those impacts,” Blackadder said. “We have been doing the program for quite a long while. It has a really big impact on the students who take part in it. All they have to do is demonstrate a commitment to their education and have some financial need. We try to help where we can.
“Another big change is with digital. We try to maintain course material format choices for students, but we also need to be able to provide technical support. That’s a big change. Students have course material options now, such as used, new, digital, perpetual codes and rental codes. There’s a lot of different pieces for them to understand and they are trying to figure out what they need. We work really hard to provide clear communication on the shelves and online to help students make good decisions about their learning goals,” Blackadder said. “You can’t be afraid to almost overcommunicate. We might think ‘Oh, they will know this’ after we sent a message out once, but students are just like us. They have a lot of information coming at them. Overcommunication helps us ensure our students see the message at least once.”
When working to provide students with excellent customer service, it is important to try to see the bookstore experience from the students’ point of view.
“Bookstores are a pretty weird place. Students don’t necessarily like buying textbooks. So, we consider the student experience. We make the process easy and seamless, so they get what they need, and they have as little trouble as possible. We apply this to everything we do, including how we communicate on social media, in our emails, on our shelves and in person,” Blackadder said. “We try to be really thoughtful about how we do what we do and to make sure we are treating students as individuals. The industry is changing quickly and if we are not on top of it, we are going to get left behind.”
Supporting the bookstore’s goals
To help the University of Calgary Bookstore ensure students have the materials they need on time and for the best possible price, the store has partnered with MBS.
“We try to bin and hold as much as possible so there is one shipment from the US to Canada because shipping can be very expensive. We work directly with MBS to ensure we are getting the books we need at price points that work for us. MBS has been really accommodating. It’s good to know we always have someone to help us,” Blackadder said.
Because of the additional service and support MBS provides, the store is able to offer students a greater variety of course material options than they otherwise could.
“We really appreciate having an additional set of eyes on what we are doing. It saves us so much time later. That’s the sort of customer service that makes it possible for us to keep bringing in used books,” Blackadder said. “We are operating with about a third of the staff we had four to five years ago. Without the additional help to preemptively fix problems, we would have to make hard choices about what we can reasonably accomplish with the staff we have. However, with the help of our MBS representatives and the services MBS provides, we can continue to offer students a variety of course material choices that help us keep costs down.”