Universities and Virtual Bookstores

Early last year I met with quite a surprise when I visited the bookstore at Queens College in New York. That’s one of a dozen or so North American universities that I call on fairly regularly, and I’d always been impressed by their bookstore operation—both by how well the little store was organized and by how friendly and helpful the staff always were. (I would sometimes take a cab straight to Queens College from LaGuardia, for example, and when I did the textbook manager, Joey Hernandez, was always happy to let me leave my roller bag in his office for a few hours while I called on academics.)

When I visited in early 2016, the bookstore was about to close—for good; Joey Hernandez and many others were out of a job.

Queens College is one of a growing number of universities and colleges that have replaced their traditional bookstore with a virtual bookstore. Instead of buying their texts in person, students buy them through an online storefront, and the physical books are then shipped to them. (Sometimes the institution retains a shop that sells university sweatshirts and coffee mugs and beer steins; sometimes the apparel and souvenir merchandizing is also moved online.)

The lure of these operations is that costs will supposedly be reduced, online ordering will supposedly be straightforward and convenient for students, books will supposedly be more affordable, and academics will supposedly have fewer hassles dealing with bookstore foul-ups. It may all sound good in theory (at least to those who have no desire for browsing in a bookshop to be part of the university experience). But in practice it seems it doesn’t always work out so well. Here’s the reaction posted online by a philosophy instructor at Harold Washington College in Chicago, for example—one who had expressed enthusiasm for the change to a virtual bookstore before it happened:

I should have known better. My classes are currently plagued with students who do not yet have their books. We’re in week four, and students report they haven’t received their books. The first week, a number of students claimed they had no way of knowing what books to buy. I’m sure the information was available to them, but they didn’t know where to get it. Today, I heard reports of one student still waiting on his book (though he ordered it on week two) and another student who had had first experienced a delay in shipping … [and then] received a book for a psychology class. Maybe some of my students are exaggerating their book woes, or blaming the system when it is in fact their fault. But it can’t be true for all students. If we had a brick and mortar [bookstore], I would know that they had a clear opportunity to get their books.

Even for the bookstores themselves, as it turns out, things often don’t work out as planned. Wooster College, for example, ran a pilot project in 2016, adopting the “hybrid model” of continuing to sell apparel, stationery, and art supplies, while moving its textbook “store” online. In a December 2 online article addressed to his “fellow College Store Professionals,” Bookstore Director Kevin Leiter explained why they have decided at the end of the year to become a full-service textbook store once again:

The business reasons to consider a hybrid model are sound. … The hidden costs can be significant, however, and it’s why I advocate that college stores should continue to carry textbooks in their store. … What we discovered during the two-semester pilot was that the absence of textbooks in our store drove students away. We were no longer a part of the back-to-school ritual. [In theory,] the only change was that textbooks were being offered online through a virtual site. It was a branded and linked site connected to our store. Students were given instructions on how to [order books]. …  Only they weren’t. Student orders dropped significantly term to term. Even though prices were competitive on the virtual site, students weren’t going there. Why? Because there was no innate advantage to doing so. No compelling tie to the college, no convenience of picking books up right before classes. No friendly bookstore staff to help on the site. Furthermore, when students or faculty experienced trouble with books or adoptions, as is inevitable every term, our staff was unable to impact results directly. We were relegated to the role of the middleman, relaying issues to our vendor partner and hoping to influence results, rather than creating solutions for our customers.

We at Broadview can’t say whether these experiences are typical. But we can attest to numerous cases of confusion over the availability of Broadview books at universities with virtual bookstores; several academics have been in touch after having been told by virtual bookstore representatives that they could not order Broadview texts, and it has sometimes required a good deal of effort to sort out the confusion and make sure students were able to purchase the Broadview books the instructor had chosen for the course. The problem of text availability is of course not unique to virtual bookstores; however, if issues arise, publishers (and faculty!) have a direct point of contact for addressing and resolving them as quickly as possible at a traditional store. Much as Kevin Leiter found, any difficulties we have encountered with virtual bookstores have been exacerbated by having no phone number to call or representative to contact, only a generic email address for the vendor partnered with the bookstore.

We are of course in no position to say whether a virtual bookstore would be the right choice for your university or college; every institution has its own particular needs, and it may be that a virtual bookstore will work well at some institutions. I should also make clear that I’m writing here about systemic issues with virtual bookstores; I’m not saying anything against the companies that run them, or their staff (who, when we have dealt with them, have been as friendly and helpful as are most staff at traditional university bookstores). But on the basis of what we have heard, we’d be inclined to advise any institution considering changing to this system to be extremely cautious—and urge academics who are concerned about course text issues to become involved in the decision-making process. And for those of you who may already have virtual bookstores on campus, you might consider instead looking for local independent bookstores with whom you might be able to place course adoption orders if you’d prefer to give your students a bricks and mortar option for purchasing your books.

If you’ve had experience at your institution with a virtual bookstore, we’d be very interested in hearing how it has gone.

Don LePan

CEO and Company Founder

P.S. I’d like to emphasize that all Broadview titles remain in print and available for sale. If you or your students or your bookstore (whether it is bricks and mortar or virtual) are having difficulty in obtaining any Broadview title(s), please be in touch with one of our reps or our customer service staff. While many of our titles are also available for sale through online vendors such as Amazon, we cannot control what they choose to keep in stock at any given time. We find that online vendors are often an unreliable source of information about the availability, pricing, and current edition of many publisher’s books, including our own. For up-to-date information about Broadview titles please visit our home page or email reps@broadviewpress.com to be put in touch with the Broadview Representative for your institution.


Posted on January 9, 2017