Barnes & Noble Thinks College Kids Can Solve Its Financial Woes

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A blog about business and economics.
May 8 2014 3:55 PM

Barnes & Noble Thinks College Kids Can Solve Its Financial Woes

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Can college students' spending help turn Barnes & Noble around?

Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Barnes & Noble has set its sights on college campuses. The national bookseller plans to grow its 696 college locations to 1,000 stores over the next five years, Reuters reports, in order to reverse sluggish sales and find alternative streams of revenue. Barnes & Noble wants the new college stores to be bigger and better so that they become a social hub for students and locals alike, college business head Max Roberts told Reuters. The goal is to create a string of "academic superstores" with spacious cafés, a wider selection of apparel, and even Clinique cosmetics counters.

Barnes & Noble is the second-largest operator of college bookstores (behind education company Follett Corp., which runs 940 such shops). At a time when sales of traditional print books have dwindled, college students remain lucrative customers. The College Board finds that the average student spent a whopping $1,200 overall on textbooks and supplies in 2013. The National Association of College Stores estimates that the average student spent $711 at their own campus store in the 2011-12 academic year, and that sales in the entire college store market were worth $10.45 billion that year. Barnes & Nobles, by comparison, did $7.1 billion in total sales in fiscal year 2012, of which $1.7 billion came from its college division.

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While Amazon and other online vendors facilitate markets for buying and selling new and old coursebooks, many students still opt to do their shopping on campus. Sometimes buying online is a lot cheaper, but not always: Saving $100 on a used copy of an organic chemistry textbook, for example, probably feels a lot more worthwhile than getting a few dollars off Mrs. Dalloway, especially if it could be days or weeks before the text ships and then navigates its way through the local post office. (Pro tip: The cheapest option of all is to reserve your books in advance through the college or local library system.)

Still, if Barnes & Noble really does turn its college branches into "academic superstores," it might be able to convince college students to make their purchases of books and other merchandise there by capitalizing on convenience. And if lots of students start hanging out in the bookstore to study, chances are they'll fuel those academic pursuits by spending a tidy sum on coffee and snacks.

Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.

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