Bookstore Faces New Challenges in the Digital Era

web_BooksThe bookstore is quiet on a Wednesday afternoon. A student calmly browses the shelves half-full of course books, and another sits in one of the four chairs at the center of the room. The atmosphere is one of the advantages that EMU’s campus bookstore is proud to have over online competitors like Amazon: “many students still prefer to visit the store to talk face-to-face with an associate,” said Trinda Burkhalter, store manager.

However, despite the seeming tranquility of the store and its employees, the bookstore will be facing new challenges as other traditional brick and mortar booksellers have been forced out of business by competition from online retailers such as Amazon and Chegg. The market, especially for smaller campus stores, seems to be contracting.

In a July 2012 article for University Business entitled, “The Curious Longevity of the College Bookstore,” Brian Jacobs writes, “College bookstores have fared unevenly over the last several years. Large campus stores have generally managed better than smaller ones.”

“The campus bookstore is very much a relic from the past.” Said Mark Sawin, history professor. Sawin continued, “Quite frankly, I give them [the bookstore] my list, and then expect all of my students to buy their books online.”

Yet, Sawin does make it clear that the bookstore does provide some services that cannot be supplied by online retailers, “Whenever a student tells me they can’t find a book, I can tell them that it is in the bookstore.”

Burkhalter is also keen to point out one other big advantage that she believes EMU’s store holds over third party online services, “The campus store provides unique service value by allowing the use of student IDs or campus cards.”

The ability to charge books to student accounts is an advantage that was agreed upon by Jacobs, who wrote, “Each year, billions of dollars are available to students in the form of grants and, mostly, student loans to use for textbook purchases. The catch, though, is that these funds often arrive too late to be applied to third party textbook sources. Thus institutions have developed what appears to be a supportive system of fronting students credits or vouchers that can only be used at the official sanctioned provider, typically the campus bookstore.”

Another advantage that both Sawin and Burkhalter see for the bookstore is the relationships cultivated with professors. Says Sawin, “I want to make it clear that I am not criticizing the store. I like the staff; they work very hard to find my books.”

Burkhalter also cites the growing catalogs of e-books, and the option to rent a book for less than the cover price as ways that the bookstore is dealing with competition from online sources.

However, these advantages may mean little to a cash strapped student. The bookstore usually faces student criticism about purchase and buy back pricing.

Complaints about low buyback payments, between 30 percent and 50 percent according to Burkhalter, and high sticker prices are commonplace on EMU’s campus. Citing these complaints, Senior Kenny Graber explained his only experience with the bookstore, “I bought one book there and it was a mistake. I could have gotten it for $40 online, but it was $60 in the book store.”

Even if these student complaints win out, EMU will not lose since the bookstore is operated by Follet, a large educational distribution company. As Sawin explains, “EMU just receives a check for rent. No matter how the store is doing.”

-David Yoder, Co-Editor In Chief


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