Will the Wildcat Store’s new corporate management prioritize students or profits?
When students walk into the Chico State Wildcat Store this fall, they’ll see the university’s name in black, white and red adorning crew necks, hoodies and V-necks. They’ll catch sight of Willie the Wildcat snarling between the words “Wildcat Mom” and “Wildcat Dad” on gray T-shirts. Rows of multicolored textbooks will peer from shelves, waiting to be skimmed and highlighted.
Besides a few rearranged displays, the campus bookstore looks just the way students left it last semester. In May, however, the Chico State Associated Students signed a five-year agreement to contract out management of the campus bookstore to Follett Corp., a private educational retail and wholesale company based in Illinois.
The A.S., an independent and student-owned campus auxiliary, managed the Wildcat Store and still owns it. In-store operations, however, are now the responsibility of Follett, which manages over 930 bookstores nationwide—88 of them college bookstores in California.
Sarah Foisy, the Wildcat Store’s new director, said that Follett is hoping to cut costs for students by offering a much larger selection of e-books and rentals. Though students will see some changes, such as new clothing and skincare lines, Follett is mainly expanding upon items that were already available in the store. The bookstore has taken steps to maintain relationships with its local vendors and still offers products at the Apple and Clinique counters and convenience store.
“The interest of the store is to provide a resource and support for campus,” Foisy said. “Right now, our big focus is that our books are on the shelves, we’re ready for back to school [and] we’re ready for students and faculty.”
So far, it appears Follett has made only slight changes at the Wildcat Store, things that likely will not concern students. However, some people warn that such a change in management serves as a harbinger for a gradual shift away from a store that prioritizes the students and campus to one that puts profits first.
Chuck Morrow, a Chico State alumnus, is a former division manager for The Bookie, the campus bookstore at Washington State University. In the spring of 2004, The Bookie entered contracted management under Barnes & Noble College (the same company that vied against Follett for management of the Wildcat Store). When that happened, Morrow decided to offer students an alternative bookstore. He left The Bookie and immediately went to work to open and manage the independently operated Crimson & Gray in Pullman, Wash.
“Just like the Chico State bookstore, The Bookie at WSU was all about serving students. Every decision we made was in the best [interest of] the students,” he said. “Once they turned it over to Barnes & Noble, that wasn’t the priority. And I didn’t want to work for a company whose priority was profit-driven.”
Though Crimson & Gray is owned by the corporation Nebraska Book Co., marketing, pricing and advertising decisions are made in the store, rather than where the corporation’s centralized buying occurs, he said.
When Barnes & Noble came on the scene, many changes occurred that negatively affected the campus, he said. The Bookie went through a large turnover of staff. Some employees were let go while others were demoted once their positions were eliminated under new management, he said, noting that people who worked in accounting and advertising found themselves at the espresso bar and doing janitorial work.
Retail prices also increased. Though The Bookie maintained a 10 percent textbook discount after the change in management, retail prices of select items, such as textbook bundles and custom-published books, immediately went up by 5 percent to 10 percent, Morrow said. Prices of merchandise also increased. Additionally, local products and services were no longer offered in the store.
This, however, doesn’t appear to be the case at the Wildcat Store. At least not yet.
Follett is offering the campus bookstore a robust rental program: The title count for rentals at the bookstore has doubled, and e-books also will be provided for rental and purchase for certain courses, Foisy said. This is one of the ways Follett can offer students lower textbook prices.
Follett also can pull from its large inventory of new and used textbooks available for rent or purchase. If a book isn’t in stock at the Wildcat Store, students can order online and have it shipped from one of Follett’s many other college-managed stores, Foisy said. This also comes in handy when students want to sell back their textbooks—if the Wildcat Store doesn’t need the book, Follett can try to sell it to one of its other campus stores.
Follett also has offered new positions to all of the store’s A.S. management and student employees, said A.S. President Taylor Herren. Employee retention was an important part of the contract she created with David Buckley, executive director of the A.S.
“Everyone will still see their friends working here,” Foisy added.
But Morrow warned that decisions by large companies that contract with universities are driven by the bottom line.
“There are contract-managed stores that run really well. But they will never be able to get a store to the level of excellence that an independent can do it. And the reason is, independents are focused primarily on their campus and their students,” he said. “And that is not the way that a contract-managed store is run. They put profit ahead of service.”
A Follett insider who spoke with CN&R on the condition of anonymity said that there is nothing unique or different about any of the individual campus bookstores under that corporation’s management, the source said.
“The things they say about innovation—for instance, their websites or their point-of-sale systems, are not state-of-the-art, even if they claim they are,” the insider said, pointing out that merchandise, such as university-branded products, is the same at other colleges save for a logo and school name.
Morrow warns that the directors of corporately managed stores may not have very much influence over decisions made at headquarters. And students may grow tired of having to choose from the same sweatshirts and merchandise offered at all Follett stores.
While it’s early, Herren and Buckley view the agreement with Follett as a partnership. They already have begun meeting with Foisy and discussing the relationship between the private company and the student organization.
“This is still a business that’s run in the student union. It’s supposed to be a service for students,” Herren said. “We need to make sure that we’re selling [local] products … that we’re selling merchandise that people want, we’re having good relationships with faculty … [and] that student employees are happy.”
Follett is contractually required to sell certain local products at the bookstore, and Foisy said the company is committed to maintaining those ties. The Wildcat Store’s current offerings include products from University Farm, ChicoBag and Klean Kanteen, and students will still be able to grab a doughnut from Helen’s Donut Nook, a sandwich from A.S. Dining or food produced by the College of Agriculture’s Meats Lab at the convenience store within the Wildcat Store.
“Chico seems to be big on local, so it’s definitely something we want to do,” Foisy said. “We want to maintain that.”
The Wildcat Store’s rewards program, in which students received points for making purchases that could later be turned into gift cards for the store, has been discontinued, but the store will offer periodic sales and promotions, Foisy said. Students will notice some new merchandise as well, such as clothing from Columbia Sportswear, and Bliss and Philosophy skincare products.
Students familiar with the campus bookstore before the shift may notice some subtle differences that come with the change in management, the Follett insider said. The changes at the Wildcat Store could be positive or negative.
“Are the lines shorter or longer during the back-to-school parade? Are the numbers of used books available more or fewer since the transition? Is it easier or more difficult to order online since the transition?” the source asked, rhetorically. “Those are the kind of things [in which] a customer who was a previous customer of the Wildcat Store might see a difference.”
A.S. administrators’ and student leaders’ decision to contract out management of the bookstore was not easy. Though these agreements can be surrounded by uncertainty, the organization’s leadership did not have any other options if they wanted to offer students more affordable prices and services, said Herren, the A.S. president.
Chico State is among many colleges that have experienced a struggling self-operating bookstore because of rising textbook prices and competition from online retailers, Herren noted.
“The Wildcat Store, for the past couple of years, has been losing money,” she said. “We have experienced huge losses in the area of textbook sales, which is our largest revenue generator.”
Buckley, the executive director, said that last semester’s business projections predicted a loss in sales that nearly doubled every subsequent year. In three years, the store would have lost close to $900,000 if it remained self-operated.
Once the A.S. board of directors received these projections and examined its business model and capabilities, Herren added, the question wasn’t whether to lease, but which company to choose. There was no way that the board would fund the store with student fees, which pay for students to be a part of the A.S. union and do not fund its for-profit businesses, like the Wildcat Store.
Even after decreasing expenses by reducing the number of employees at the store, Buckley said, the business wasn’t able to sustain itself.
When it came time to lease, a committee composed of Herren and other A.S. employees and student representatives, reviewed proposals from two corporate giants: Follett and Barnes & Noble College.
“It was about who was going to be better for us to lease to and who was going to offer a better service to campus,” Herren said. “And it was definitely Follett.”
Follett’s wealth of information and the resources behind it as a corporation that operates so many campus stores will make a huge difference when it comes to being able to offer students lower prices on textbooks, Buckley said.
“One advantage of going with Follett has to do with basically the buying power, in essence, that they have,” he said. “And the investment they already have in the digital marketplace, rentals, online sales, those kinds of things, will definitely benefit students.”
Follett also offered a 16.6 percent commission of store revenue to the A.S. That money can go to supporting programs and activities for all students, Herren said.
Though the Wildcat Store’s change in management appears to be beneficial, Morrow remains skeptical. He thinks the partnership with Follett is currently in its “honeymoon period.”
“Follett’s going to come in and they’re going to start running things and it’s going to look OK,” Morrow said. “But over time, Follett’s going to make changes. They’re going to increase prices and change personnel, and it’s going to be like the frog in boiling water. And the university won’t know what to do.”
It remains to be seen whether that is too strong of an analogy to describe the potential changes that the Wildcat Store could see. Follett’s contract with the A.S. began on July 1.
For now, according to Herren, Foisy and Buckley, all student and most management employees have retained their positions, more textbooks are offered as rentals and e-books to cut costs for students, and local products and familiar brands are still a big part of the store.
“I’ve been very impressed with Follett and the way they’ve come in and wanted to work with us and wanted to maintain the relationships we have with local vendors,” Buckley added. “Honestly, I feel really good about them coming in.”
Change isn’t ever easy; it is frustrating and upsetting that the A.S. wasn’t able to continue managing the Wildcat Store and having direct-control ownership, Herren said. But no matter how unsettling change can be, it wouldn’t do students any good for the A.S. to continue managing the Wildcat Store at a financial detriment to the A.S. and the students, she continued.
“[The decision to lease] was really made out of necessity to protect students and their dollars,” Herren said. “I hope and I really believe it’s going to be a substantially better service for students.”