A Brief History of B&N College

Editor’s Note: The following post was left as a comment yesterday by Ed Renehan. It’s a short history and analysis of B&N College with a couple predictions on what their inclusion in the new Nook spinoff really means.

My father-in-law was the Sr. VP at B&N who founded their College Division thirty or more years ago.

The basis of the business model up to now has been the “lease” from institutions (on a % royalty of annual sales basis) of (usually ineptly-managed) college stores and the rolling of those stores into an efficient nationwide purchasing and distribution infrastructure … plus building upon those economies of scale through professional non-institutional in-store management.

Fifteen or so years ago, when B&N went public, Lenny Riggio and his family held back the College Division and did not include that property in the public offering. It is only relatively recently, I think within the past four years, that the public corporation purchased the College Division.

B&N currently has leases on 641 stores. Sales have been dropping of late. And the purchase of this White-Elephant-in-Decline from the Riggio family has in the recent past been a major bone-of-contention between the B&N board and activist investor Ron Burkle, who has said he views the current B&N board as a rubber-stamp for Riggio family interests.

Of course, much of B&N’s advantage in the traditional college bookstore paradigm goes out the window with the advent and spread of digital textbooks. B&N’s brick-and-mortar/distribution/store management economies of operation will mean little when the majority of texts or downloadable, purchased online, for consumption on tablets, PCs and Smartphones.

While it makes sense for B&N to make a reach for a digital solution to this erosion of a most profitable base, I don’t see how the effort is likely to gain them any tangible “corner” on the college market.

Campus-by-campus exclusivity on sales will no longer exist.

Advance adoptions, print-runs, etc. will be things of the past.

Also, textbook publishers will almost certainly create multiple editions of their books deployable across the range of operating system platforms: Android (including Nook), iOS and (probably as an afterthought, given what we are seeing in the sales of tablet and Smartphone hardware these days) Windows tablets.

Which raises the question, what does the Microsoft partnership gain B&N outside of $300 million in cash? I don’t think much. OK, so they’ll have a Nook app for Windows 8. Great. And, I suppose, they’ll have help merging the College Division’s version of the Nook platform with the retail version. Terrific.

But the fact remains: Nook-specific texts are far less likely to emerge than are versions conceived more broadly, on an operating-system specific level. B&N’s “College Division” will effectively have absolutely no advantage over any other digital bookseller, whether those competitors have a “College Division” or not.

At least that’s my view, “my two cents,” for whatever it is worth (probably two cents).

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