University of New Mexico Bookstore Director Carrie Mitchell jokes that sometimes she thinks her state is a little behind the curve of textbook trends. When sales started to stagnate and decline for stores nationwide five or six years ago, as students flocked toward perceived better deals online, the UNM Bookstore remained steady.
"Our students still wanted the convenience of the bookstore, but once they figured out the savings online, instead of sales declining over several years, they just went down," Mitchell said. "We knew we had to make some big changes."
The store realized it needed to make costs more competitive, and fast. After surveying students, it found customers still wanted to come in for convenience. The total number of shoppers had not decreased significantly — but total units had as students would buy just one or two books with the store and then acquire the rest of their materials elsewhere.
"So we sat down and figured if we could get students to buy more than one unit at a time, it would be worth the decrease in margin," Mitchell said. "So we got out there, talked to stores, went to conferences and developed a plan."
That's when the store opted to move away from the traditional margins of profit stores had been using for decades, and develop more savings initiatives through rentals, digital course materials and marketplace sourcing. As a result, the average cost of a title at UNM Bookstore decreased by nearly $20, from $88 to just $69.
The first cost-saving measure the store sought to implement was to encourage the adoption and implementation of more lower-cost digital titles.
"We targeted freshmen classes and seemed really good way with inclusive access, as they'll affect more people; more freshmen buy and typically use books," Mitchell said. "We partnered with our Spanish Department and went completely digital for all of our Spanish courses, which here is a few thousand students. Word got out again: Students liked it. Faculty liked it. The Coordinator of Spanish had lots of other faculty calling her. It was one of those things that snowballed, which was wonderful."
The store also implemented a cost-comparison tool on the school's website. Mitchell found 70% of people who use the tool choose the store over a competitor and, within reason, convenience trumps savings.
"One of the things that the comparison tool shows you that if you're within 10% of the competitors' prices, students will go with you even if it's more expensive," she said. "I do think it’s a matter of convenience, but convenience isn’t a convenience if no one knows about it. We also try to schedule 20 minutes with every new student orientation group to explain the cost-comparison tool and the other benefits of shopping with us. I think it’s really helped our students."
The measures have not gone unnoticed by the greater campus community. The university's independent student newspaper, the Daily Lobo, recognized the store's initiatives to cut costs. Mitchell even found herself invited to speak to UNM's deans by the school's provost and vice provost this summer, which has lead to an overall improvement in the store's relationship with campus faculty.
"I think our administrators are realizing they have a say in the bookstore, and we’ll work with them," she said. "They support us and tell faculty to go work with us as well. It may have taken me years to overcome the misconceptions about why our books were expensive, the benefits we provide and how much the store gives to the university, but now we have a great relationship. It's definitely paid off."