A Call for Service

by Joe Schneider

As I’ve been trying to keep up with the fast-moving education materials retail space, I’ve been contemplating one question: “Are course materials really on a one-way crash course for commodity land?” Is the single driver in all course material purchase decisions really down to price?

What happened to the educational value colleges provide? What happened to the college dream of building a better life than your parents had? What happened to the service of educating?

In the midst of fierce online competition, college bookstores are desperate to find a new model for making their stores work. Some have suggested that bookstores should not take a margin on books. Others have suggested “the house is burning down” and a new business model is needed entirely.

“All-inclusive access will drive down costs by allowing bulk buying discounts!”

“Open education resources will mean nobody pays for educational content!”

“E-texts will save the day by reaping the benefits of reduced manufacturing and distribution costs.”

Yet, students remain a perplexing and fickle bunch. As the College Bookstore magazine reported in its July/August 2017 issue, the South Dakota Board of Regents determined that an overwhelming majority of students still prefer paper-based textbooks, even after being forced to use e-textbooks for a year. What was the SDBOR’s response? Mandate e-textbooks for the students.

What if, instead, bookstores were partners not just in a student’s retail experience on campus, but were partners in their education? Chegg is following this model to great success with their Tutors, Study, and Writing Tools programs. Their results: 50% Year/Year growth in these businesses, while their traditional book business has declined over the past three years. Chegg is finding a way to refocus from a retailer to a service provider by helping students with their broader education needs. It’s all about the service of educating.

And now let’s address the cost-savings through various permutations of bulk access, all-inclusive, e-texts, etc. These programs seem to be off in some MBA-fueled optimization problem of distribution, logistics, and cost negotiation. The point they miss is that education is not just a textbook. Publishers want us to hold this view, because - yes - then they can drive all margins out of the distribution chain.

Let’s start owning the mission of colleges as a service. Not the service of selling. Not the service of driving down pricing. But the service of educating.

My company, Flamingo, has focused on ways to help colleges serve students better. Our current offerings help bookstores build strong relationships with students, loyal relationships, that bring students back to the store as an always-on resource. We believe that strong service, in the spirit of education, is what will revitalize the bookstore market.