A trip to the university bookstore can be an expensive yet inevitable start to each semester. “Part of our challenge back here in textbooks is that no one really wants to spend five or six or 700 dollars on their textbooks … We’re not the most popular guys on the block back here,” explained David Knickerbocker, textbook department manager at the MSU Bookstore.
This year, the bookstore introduced several new textbook initiatives to improve their customer service and transparency for their stakeholders — MSU students and faculty. Knickerbocker explained that the bookstore is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, incorporated in 1931 and technically owned by MSU students and faculty. “We’re like a co-op but you don’t have to join us to be a member. Our shareholders are students, whether they understand that or realize that … We like them to know,” he said.
Because of their non-profit status, the bookstore makes a small margin of sales revenue compared to other stores. To set a textbook price, the bookstore divides the amount that they purchased the book for by 0.77 and subtracts an additional 10 percent. According to Knickerbocker, this leaves the bookstore with a margin on new textbooks of slightly less than 14 percent, much lower than at other stores, which may divide by 0.75 or 0.67. Marketing Coordinator Janel Acheson pointed out as a reference that retail stores generally have a margin of 50 percent. The money earned by the bookstore is used to pay overhead costs, including their lease in the SUB which consumes 3.3 percent of sales revenue.
One of the bookstore’s new initiatives is a price compare feature on their website. They partnered with a company called Verba, a service which allows students to compare the MSU Bookstore’s prices to internet prices on Amazon, CengageBrain, Chegg, Half, Textbooks.com and Redshelf, an e-book provider. Acheson explained that the new program allows students to “compare major providers on the internet with us.”
“We feel that this is moving forward and being very transparent about our pricing, and that it really for the first time allows students to see that our prices are reasonable,” Knickerbocker said. However, the bookstore cannot have the lowest prices every time, especially when competing with students selling their books on the open market. Acheson described the price compare program as “a way for students to have confidence that they got the best price across the board whether they buy through us or Amazon or Chegg or wherever they decide to go through.”
The service launched Aug. 1. According to Acheson, students purchased 11,599 books in August using the new price compare feature. The program is still in its education phase, and the bookstore is working to make students aware of their new services. “We didn’t have a lot of time to promote it, so we weren’t really sure how successful any of it would be, but we feel like it was really successful especially for the first time around with little promotion,” Knickerbocker said.
The bookstore also started offering other new services over the summer, including a live chat web feature, partnership with RedShelf and reservation pickup. The reservation service was more popular than expected and Acheson said the staff is now “figuring out how to move that forward successfully.” Knickerbocker said that despite the extra work, “it was so successful there’s no going back now.”
To utilize the price compare service, students can go to montanastate.verbacompare.com and enter their course numbers to receive a list of required textbooks and buying options from various providers.