Delaware Valley University Bookstore Assistant Director, Rick Horner, has a deep understanding of industry challenges. That’s probably one reason the Doylestown, Pennsylvania campus retailer continues to thrive.
We caught up with Horner at MBS Systems Training Fall Forums to discuss the future of textbooks and find out about his store’s approach to customer experience. Despite fears that course materials will go the way of the dinosaurs, he said he believes they will remain fundamental to education.
“I think textbooks are going to stay where they are,” Horner said. “I think they’re an important piece of the puzzle for the student.”
However, that doesn’t mean students aren’t in need of education about course materials. Horner echoed other industry experts, saying customers undervalue books more than they once did. He said he sees this as part of a larger social fixation on bargain shopping that blinds us to the true goals of college study.
“I don’t know that every student understands the value of course materials,” Horner said. “I think it’s important for somebody to take students under their wing and explain that just passing a course isn’t what college is for. Becoming truly proficient in things requires a deeper dive. I think we as a society have become so price-conscious that we’re forgetting the value of what we’re in school for. I think that’s an important wave that needs to come crashing into the rocks now.”
Like many college store professionals, Horner sees a role for faculty in meeting that challenge. However, he’s aware that, if the bookstore leaves the issue up the instructor, the student’s perception of whether the cost was too great will hinge entirely on how the teacher uses the book.
“I think when instructors show the way they’re going to be using the textbook, it helps,” he said. "I think that when students pay X for a book and then the instructor doesn’t use it, it feels like they spent too much for the book.”
DVU Bookstore focuses on helping students grasp the value of each purchase. Store personnel actively cultivate long-term relationships, forming connections that last the entire time students attend classes on the private liberal arts campus.
Interpersonal dialog starts with course materials purchases. DVU Bookstore offers clerk, or counter, service — something the campus’ small undergraduate population simplifies — in which associates bring texts and access codes to each customer, rather than requiring them to wander the store searching shelves on their own. In that way, the bookstore does not have to rely on faculty to ensure customers have a positive experience with purchases.
“We’re having a conversation with literally as many students as possible,” said Horner. “At our busiest, we’re still trying to help them understand that each item is something their teacher is going to use. Or, if we’re not a 100% sure about that, that they might want to check with the instructor before they make a purchase. In all of those situations, we’re really working on trying to build rapport because we’re working on trying to build those students as customers for the life of the time that they’re with the institution. So, they’re not just purchasing the item. Really, they’re purchasing the trust from us. They’re going to come back and be the customer for many years to come — whether they’re buying a pack of gum or a chemistry textbook.
Horner has found that speaking to students before they make a purchase goes a long way toward helping develop and maintain those long-term relationships. The dialogs he has at the counter often save students time and offer them comfort — two things outside competitors can’t do.
“I like that we’re not answering questions after the fact,” said Horner. “Instead, they tell me what classes they have and I give them recommendations about what to buy, then I hand them the items and they understand what they have. It’s that as opposed to them gathering the items and wondering what do I have to do now? It’s more, Okay! These are the things you’re going to need. This is an access code. It doesn’t look like much. It’s kind of small and flat, but it’s going to give you everything you need.