By Doug Sweet
The relocation of the McGill Bookstore in 2016 from its 3420 McTavish St. location across from the Service Point to parts unknown as yet might actually result in a multiplication exercise.
Many participants at a sparsely attended Town Hall meeting Monday seemed to embrace the notion that, in order to serve its clientele better, the store should consider branching out into a number of smaller outlets, or even pop-up stores, that could be more flexible in their offerings and tailor merchandise to the market close to their location.
For example, were there to be a Bookstore outlet in the residence complex north of the Royal Victoria Hospital and Molson Stadium, it might offer more “convenience store” products than an outlet located so as to serve students and faculty near the Medicine and Law Faculties.
This was one of the take-aways from the Town Hall, held in Leacock 232, where Bianca Barbucci, a retail consultant hired by the University to consult diverse members of the McGill community and develop recommendations on the future of the Bookstore, outlined some facts and figures and spoke of the dramatic changes taking place in retail today.
The Bookstore is relocating to allow the adjoining Desautels Faculty of Management to grow beyond the confines of the Bronfman Building and place its MBA programs in new, roomier space. The consultation process is to determine what the community needs from the Bookstore in an era where online shopping is growing by leaps and bounds and where sales of traditionally published material have been in decline for more than five years. Over-all sales have declined 16.8 per cent since 2008.
The Bookstore pulled in about $17 million in gross revenue last year, Barbucci said, which netted out to about $200,000 for the University. About 2 per cent of sales were online.
And Bookstore sales tend to be extremely concentrated at two times of the year, as might be expected. In the first three weeks of the fall term, the Bookstore does about 35 per cent of its annual business, while the first three weeks of the winter term produces about 23 per cent of annual sales, she said. The Bookstore has 33 full-time employees and up to 60 part-time student workers.
“There’s a changing retail landscape out there,” with changing patterns and customer priorities, she said. “Nowadays, a retailer cannot have a brick-and-mortar store and just hope people will come to it.”
Across the industry, there has been a decline in the sale of textbooks and course materials, Barbucci said, noting that the McGill Bookstore lacks experience in supplementing in-store sales with online retailing. “There’s an inflexible use of space (in the store) and reduced traffic during off-peak periods,” she noted.
Students raised concerns about the cost of textbooks and what they find an irritating tendency for textbook publishers to make small changes from edition to edition, with professors insisting on students using the latest edition. While the Bookstore does mention the cost of textbooks to professors, General Manager Jason Kack told the Town Hall, “we generally do stock what they ask us to.”
Trenholme Dean of Libraries Colleen Cook told the meeting “you cannot build this business model on textbooks and coursepacks. The electronic versions of these materials are a lot less expensive for students. … This is not a McGill thing; it’s a universal thing. That’s the reality of the situation.”
One way to counterbalance the loss of revenue from course materials might be to boost sales of souvenir items or so-called “branded merchandise” during what could be a third peak period for the Bookstore – Convocation – according to some of the participants at the Town Hall. Cook agreed. “Normally, branded merchandise is a gold mine,” she said.
And broadening the range of merchandise offered at the Bookstore could also help offset falling book sales. Suggestions at the meeting ranged from selling Tupperware containers to students in residence to kettles, bike racks, online furniture or even using vending machines to sell such electronic equipment as phone or computer chargers and cables, earbuds and other small gear.
In addition to the Town Hall, the Bookstore has held three focus groups, with students, Bookstore employees and potential business partners, and has conducted an online survey. So far, the feedback has been terrific, the Town Hall was told, with more than 1,500 responses so far – about three times the expected response rate. You can learn more about the move at the Bookstore website.
“I’m really pleased with how this is going,” Kack said. “We didn’t have as many people here today as we would have liked, but it was a really good discussion and the ideas were mostly positive. The response to the survey is fantastic and I’m told the focus groups also went extremely well.
“We’ve got some interesting times ahead of us.”