University and college students will soon be buying the textbooks they need for the first day of class - which often means lineups that can last for hours.
Technology and creative retailing, however, may be changing some of that familiar ritual.
"We're doing everything we can to decrease the lineups," says Zoe Purdy, e-commerce and website manager for the University of Toronto Bookstore.
Most schools, such as the University of Toronto, are now posting the list of required textbooks for each course online. The U of T also allows students to order materials on the bookstore's website. The books are then packed in boxes and picked up at the bookstore by the students.
|Photo courtesy of the University of British Columbia|
|At many universities students use online reading lists to order textbooks at the bookstores' websites before classes start.|
Purdy, who oversees the bookstore's website from a tiny office inside the Koffler Student Services Centre, says the e-commerce site received only minimal use when it was launched in mid-2000. "It's changed dramatically since then," she adds.
Students at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver use a program known as FastStart. The students also order textbooks online and pick them up later at either the bookstore or one of the nearby student residences.
"It's still busy but a lot more organized," says Debbie Harvie, UBC's director of bookstore operations, who got the idea for the FastStart program about eight years ago from officials at the University of Tennessee.
Says Harvie, the current president of the 3,500-member National Association of College Stores: "The one nice thing about most of our members is that we don't directly compete with each other, so we can share those best practices."
The Ohio-based group is mostly made up of campus retailers from Canada and the United States, she says, but also includes countries such as Japan, England and Australia.
For the first time this year, UBC students who live in Vancouver can have the textbooks sent by courier to their home at no extra charge.
The bookstore benefits from the delivery arrangements, Harvie says. "It takes up a lot of room when you're storing 3,300 boxes for the pickup program."
Harvie says about 70 per cent of UBC students use the FastStart program, which drastically cuts down the bookstore lineups "When I started we had 10 cashiers and lineups out the door, in some cases with an hour-and-a-half wait. I remember the lineup was even three hours at times. Students hated it," she says. "I thought it was frankly unacceptable."
A greeter is now stationed at the front of the 50,000-sq.-ft. store during peak periods to help students find what they need. Eighteen cash registers keep lineups moving and if students do have to wait, they can watch television monitors or enjoy refreshments donated by suppliers.
During the busiest times in September and January, students also can play Spin-and-Win, turning a giant wheel for gift certificates and other prizes. Signs are positioned throughout the lineup to indicate waiting times.
Harvie says bookstore staff usually overestimate the time it will take to reach a cashier so students think the line is moving faster.
Purdy says many of the U of T bookstore staff will put in extra hours leading up to the start of classes on Sept. 12 and servers are watched seven days a week so students' e-mails can be dealt with.
"It's a lot of work but we're trying to make a better experience for the students when they first arrive for school. Every little bit makes a difference," she says.
Purdy says it is difficult to gauge how much of an impact the U of T's bookstore has had.
"The lineups in the bookstore have gotten better but it's hard to say what effect the website has had exactly," she says. "I mean, the bookstore is now open extra hours and they've added more cashiers so you have to balance it out somehow.
"The website was introduced as more than just a way of diverting students from the bookstore, though. Students are now more web-savvy and we have to look at different ways of serving their needs," Purdy says. "The more choice we can offer, the better."
Having the website has also allowed the bookstore to develop its role as the largest medical textbook retailer in Canada. Diagnostic instruments and supplies are regularly sold to nearby hospitals, even during the traditionally slow summer months.
Despite the technology and retail enhancements, one of the UBC bookstore's biggest challenges has not changed.
"It's true that some of our professors don't hand in their lists of approved textbooks for class on time," Harvie says. "But to be fair they don't find out what they will be teaching sometimes until June or July. The administration watches the numbers and will add or drop classes."
"It's always a juggle. I don't think you will ever change the (number of) textbooks that need to be ordered (from publishers) at the last minute," she says.
At UBC, the bookstore is big business. Public records show the bookstore brought in about $30 million in gross revenues last year. But costs are high and after expenses and administrative fees paid to the university, that was whittled down to about $350,000 in net revenues.
Harvie says bookstores make an average of 25-per-cent profit or less on most textbooks, despite the high cost of the books. Most of their profit comes from branded items with the school's name, such as clothing, which usually has margins around 100 per cent.
The University of Toronto's bookstores are privately owned by University of Toronto Press (UTP) and do not publicly disclose revenues. But Purdy says the website is counted as a top revenue producer among UTP's 11 locations in the Greater Toronto Area.
(David Hatton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)