This Autumn approximately 1.7 million students will attend UK universities for the start of the new academic year, with something in the order of 430,000 of those being first year undergraduate students looking forward – perhaps apprehensively – to taking up their places. That may seem like a larger number of students but it equates to an even larger number of books that will be required to help them settle in and succeed on their courses. As a specialist academic bookseller BTU – or ‘back to university’ – presents a logistical challenge that we begin preparing to meet early in the year through our campus shops and through our a raft of temporary pop-up campus shops which we put in place just for the BTU period.
There are a few key areas of preparation. Firstly, and most importantly, is the liaison and communication we have with all key lecturers to identify which titles will be on which reading lists and how we will work together, campus by campus, to get students into our bookshops to buy their texts. The relationships formed by each of our shop managers with lecturers within their particular institutions are crucial. It is a very personal approach; they will understand their university and campus, they will know who the decision makers are and how to form the right relationships with them so that they want to work with us as their partner. Together, we still believe that placing textbooks into the hands of students has a beneficial impact on grades and is about more than just the commercial aspect, it enhances the experience the lecturer has in teaching that particular class. The more students who own their own books, then generally the easier it is for the course to be taught.
Delivering books through schemes where the university purchases books directly for their students is also a critical element as it is during BTU that around 95% of all bursary books are handed out. It’s also the time when we get judged on the quality of our organisation. It’s when we have to deliver on our customer service promises as a bookselling partner. For example, if we set up a deal with a chemistry department at a given university to distribute pre-bought course books then we have to ensure that we get those books into students’ hands by whichever means we have agreed in an efficient and timely way If we do not deliver on our promise our reputation on campus will mean we will lose business, not grow it.
Then, for us, there is the commercial element of our preparation, where we consider what the look and feel of each shop should be during BTU. This means assessing the offers in each shop, together with the layout and where each of the key offers are going to be placed. The layout of every shop changes for BTU. The stock level doubles can double in value and each manager needs a plan of where floor stacks should be and what will be on every table. It requires organisational skill to make each shop visually attractive. It’s also important for us at this point to consider what else we need to do in order to bring students back in after BTU is over and throughout the rest of the academic year. So, for example, we are doing a lot of work on our science fiction and graphic novel offer, our stationery ranges and our gift ranges at the moment. We want students to see an offer when they come in for their textbooks that will inspire them to shop with us throughout the year.
We also have to ensure that both our team and our infrastructure for BTU are in place so that we ensure that our service will be on point. We must ensure that all customer-facing touch points are properly set up and our booksellers energised and ready to go. For our pop-up shops we need to plan all the IT that we need; whether we are going to be using cash boxes, laptop tills or a full IT suite according to sales potential of the unit. With pop-ups as with fixed shops there remains the core challenge of having conversations with departments and lecturers to find the best way to inform students that we are selling books on campus when perhaps they wouldn’t normally expect to find us there.
Our local marketing plans are also important if we are to ensure that we are going to get the students not only coming into the shop during BTU but also coming back afterwards. A lot of work has gone in to ensuring that our gift range and stationery ranges are better, for example, and we will be working hard on capturing data from students so that we can keep them up to date with our year round offers, as well has having a more informal, relevant conversation with them through our various social platforms.
There are two other groups that are also important during BTU: those attending a university where we don’t have a physical presence and those for whom the cost of new text books may be prohibitive and who may be interested in buying second hand. For the former, we are in the process of relaunching our website and will be bringing online new functionality for BTU that will enable students anywhere to access up to six million core course titles. Also, the second hand market is going to be equally important for us. We have already been working much more closely with Student Unions this year to discuss co-operative advertising of our second hand offer and are actively talking to lecturers of second and third year courses asking them if they will communicate to their students that they can come to us and sell their first year books.
Will Williams is Blackwell’s Manager for Academic Shops. Founded in 1879, Blackwell’s is the UK’s leading academic bookseller and specialist provider of publications for students and academics.