For all but a few days of the year — mainly around the start of a semester — college bookstores are focused much more on building school brands than on selling textbooks. They might as well be called college hoodie stores.
American University, in a shift reflecting that retail reality, this fall joined a modest but growing number of schools that have removed textbooks from their campus stores.
Any student at the private university in Washington who wants to buy a textbook may of course still do so, through an online site AU promotes that offers price discounts and rapid delivery of hard copies to the campus. But the store itself has not a single copy on hand of the many textbooks that are required reading at AU. The only books in stock, as of Monday afternoon, were a few mass-market volumes, including “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins and “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Most students don’t seem to mind. They and their peers at colleges elsewhere long ago became savvy online shoppers, hunting for used copies, cheap rentals or even free excerpts of the texts they need — all in the quest to save precious dollars for other school expenses.
But Yazmin Padilla, 19, a sophomore from Arizona, confessed that she was a bit nostalgic for the now-vanished sight of stacks of textbooks.
“You knew they were expensive, but they were there,” Padilla said. “I liked looking at them.”
Padilla, an international studies major, figures she spent about $300 on books this semester. She found some through the AU website and others elsewhere. She usually compares prices through sites such as Slugbooks.com. She likes hard copies but doesn’t mind e-books once in awhile, such as the text she uses for Spanish language class. Her goal is simple: “Find the best deal — as efficiently as possible.”
That is what AU wants too.
“We’re trying to be as efficient as we can with every square foot we have,” said Charles Smith, AU’s director of auxiliary services. A staircase inside the bookstore that once led to a lower floor where the textbooks were kept has now been sealed off. The space is being remodeled to accommodate student events and a university dining club.
Smith said he heard few complaints after the university announced the switch during the summer. Two students voiced concerns about not being able to see and handle textbooks they might buy, Smith said. But for the most part the changeover was uneventful.
“Better Cheaper Online,” reads a sign posted outside the store. “We’ve taken the books out of the store, but not out of your hands.” The sign says that students who buy online can get 10 percent off the price of new or used textbooks, and discounts of up to 80 percent on rentals.
“It’s been good for the students,” Smith said. “Very good for the students.”
Lindsay Petelinkar, 19, a sophomore in international studies from Pennsylvania, said she is “a bargain hunter” and doesn’t mind waiting a day or two for the university to deliver her texts. “It’s totally worth the wait for the cheaper book,” she said.
A decade ago, Smith said, college bookstores were often considered major revenue generators for schools. Now, he said, AU views its store mainly as a resource for students and as an opportunity to build the school brand for alumni, parents and other visitors who might crave an AU sweatshirt or a plush stuffed Eagle (the school mascot).
Market research for the National Association of College Stores, a trade group, shows that students these days get their course materials through an average of about two sources, and that 40 percent of students rent at least one required text. Students spent an average of about $600 on required course materials for the 2015-2016 academic year.
Most of the nation’s estimated 4,500 campus stores still stock and sell hard copies of textbooks. “We don’t have exact numbers on how many schools have gone virtual-only for textbooks, but the majority still carry textbooks and offer both in-store and on-line purchase options,” said Jenny Febbo, an association spokeswoman.
George Washington and Georgetown universities, also in the District of Columbia, said they still stock textbooks.
GW spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said the school has a “cost-match” program to reward students who show proof that another bookseller has a lower price on the same book sold at GW’s store. In that case, she said, a student will get the difference back in the form of a gift card.
Georgetown’s Barnes & Noble College outlet said it also advertises a variety of ways to stay competitive on price, through price matching, book rentals, used-book sales and buyback programs.
“But it’s important to remember that the college bookstore isn’t just about selling books,” said Patrick Maloney, president of Barnes & Noble College. “The bookstore is a key part of a student’s success both inside and outside the classroom.” Maloney said the store functions as a “social hub on campus” – a place where new students can get their books and where “alumni and fans visit … when they come back to campus.”