Five surprising trends about course materials and the campus store

Anyone associated with collegiate retailing knows it’s a competitive arena, with traditional brick-and-mortar campus retailers facing off against a multitude of online competitors looking to capitalize on this undeniably appealing marketplace.


Anyone associated with collegiate retailing knows it’s a competitive arena, with traditional brick-and-mortar campus retailers facing off against a multitude of online competitors looking to capitalize on this undeniably appealing marketplace.

Under the banner of “textbook affordability,” collegiate retailers of all types have transformed the once-staid landscape of course materials sales into a much more dynamic, multi-faceted environment offering unprecedented convenience, shopping, and delivery options to students who have immediately adapted—and quickly come to expect—these value-added services. So where has all this left the traditional campus store?

Some people may be surprised to realize that the campus store continues to not only survive, but in many cases to thrive, particularly in its ability to maintain alignment to the objectives and academic mission of the institution.

Convenience. Knowledgeable staff. Exceptional customer service. And, yes, price. Campus stores have improved their internal systems, battled technology with technology, and otherwise embraced the basic tenets of successful retailing to emerge as the force to be reckoned with in collegiate retailing.

These key findings about student preferences about course materials, excerpted from the Spring 2015 Student Watch Study™ of 10,000 higher education students across the country, is designed to help give campus administrators a more realistic perspective on the value of their stores.

The campus store is still No. 1 in course materials sales, rentals, and returns

Online retailers like Amazon and Chegg may get the bulk of media attention, but the campus store is still the top choice among students for in-person and online purchases, rentals, and end-of-term returns of course materials. Not only do more students choose to shop at the campus store than any other retailer, they obtain the largest portion of their course materials there rather than from any other source.

Loyalty to the campus store is higher, too, than of any other retailer. Of students who made a purchase at the campus store, 55 percent of them were loyal to the store and did not shop elsewhere. And as rentals of textbooks have continued to grow, the campus store has maintained the lion’s share of the rental business, claiming nearly half of those customers.

Student spending on course materials is down

Textbook affordability has caught the attention of everyone affiliated with collegiate finance, from legislators to the media, university presidents to parents, and has prompted programs and campaigns designed to alleviate the burden on students. The good news is—it’s working.

Due to concerted efforts throughout the industry that have encompassed publishers, distributors, faculty, and retailers, annual student spending on course materials has declined steadily over the past seven years. Many factors have been at play to influence this trend, not the least of which has been sharper pricing from campus stores responding to pressure from competitive online players.

Campus stores, still the most important single resource for acquiring course materials, have enacted more effective buying practices, increased used book and rentals programs, and offered materials in multiple formats to successfully decrease student burden. Other factors influencing this trend include:

  • Faculty becoming more aware of student costs and assign materials accordingly
  • Students have become savvier shoppers, spending more time researching affordable options through multiple outlets. Price comparison software has enabled much of this flexibility.
  • Open Educational Resources, digital formats, and borrowed materials have combined to help students spend less overall on required materials.

It’s important to note that the number of units purchased has remained consistent through the year—an average of 5.3 units obtained in fall 2009 and fall 2014. The decline in spending is not due to students purchasing fewer books, but to actual decreases in costs per unit.

And yet, price isn’t the primary driver for students’ format preference

When digital materials emerged several years ago, the expectation was that demand would skyrocket because of the lower price tag. But demand for digital has been slow to grow, with most students maintaining a preference for the usability and familiarity of print despite the frequently higher price.

For students who choose materials in digital format, convenience is the primary reason behind their purchase. The ability to easily transport the material is the number-one reason for going digital, with price ranking second in importance and the versatility of the digital functionality, particularly features like search and find, coming in third. Students who prefer digital appreciate the interactive nature of the materials, which they indicate improves their ability to study and learn the coursework.

Digital course materials are gradually climbing in use; access codes are being required for more classes and obtained by more students. During the spring 2015 term, 59 percent of students were assigned a digital component to their coursework, and 80 percent of them acquired at least one.

When it comes to students’ financial concerns, textbooks aren’t even in the top three

When students were asked to rank their greatest cost challenges, tuition was far and away the number one concern, followed by housing and then living expenses. Only 39 percent of students ranked textbooks as one of their top three concerns, followed closely by transportation at 32 percent.

When it comes to course materials spending, it’s not surprising that first-year students spend the most on a combination of textbooks, technology, and school supplies. The student’s major dictates spending to some degree, with Health and Political Science majors topping the charts at about $800 a year and Humanities majors at the lower ends of the spectrum at $550.

Most students do acquire their course materials and, yes, they find them useful

Nearly 70 percent of students do acquire all of their required course materials, and 97 percent of students acquire at least one. The key to course material’s value is, not surprisingly, having faculty incorporate the materials into their teaching. When faculty use the materials as part of the class, students are much more likely to use them, and 80 percent of them find the materials valuable.

Of students who do not acquire one or more of their course materials, the predominant reason for not obtaining them is not price, but because they were deemed unnecessary, either by the professor, other students, or through previous experience by the student.

The Spring 2015 Student Watch™ is conducted by OnCampus Research, the research division of the National Association of College Stores (NACS). Funded by the NACS Foundation, Student Watch investigates student behaviors and attitudes toward their course materials through twice-yearly surveys of about 10,000 higher education students nationally.


Estella McCollum
Estella McCollum is Senior Director Client Strategy & Implementation for indiCo, a subsidiary of the National Association of College Stores. McCollum has been in the collegiate retailing industry for 10 years. In her current role with indiCo, she contributes her experience and knowledge to course materials, retail technology, and implementation for independent stores.

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