Amazon has been getting a lot of press attention over the past 6 months for the virtual bookstores it runs at Purdue University and several other US universities, but it is not the only player in that market. Nor is it largest, so today’s news should not be as surprising as it is going to sound.
There has been no public announcement, but a couple weeks ago the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee signed a new five-year contract for a virtual bookstore. According to the contract, eCampus has been selected to provide and maintain a kiosk and online bookstore where UWM students will be able to order “new and used textbooks, digital textbooks, new and used rental textbooks, custom published materials, course packs, software, and materials published or distributed electronically”.
eCampus will be required to build said kiosk and staff it with two managers, two part-time supervisors, and part-time student employees. It needs to be up and running by 1 January 2016, and the online store needs to be operational by 15 November 2015.
There are no specifics as to the kiosk’s dimensions, but the original RFP does mention that the UWM has a 3,000 square-foot space in mind in the UWM Student Union where the kiosk could be built. The kiosk will be replacing the 28 thousand square-foot UWM Bookstore, and that space is going to be “redeveloped into a smaller self-operated Campus Store”.
UWM is replacing its bookstore for much the same reason that UC Davis and UMass Amherst signed deals with Amazon. All three schools have seen their bookstore revenues drop over the past few years as students buy more online as they respond to the ever-rising cost of textbooks (the recession may have also had an impact).
UWM revealed in the RFP that its bookstore’s revenues declined by 15% between Fiscal ’10 and Fiscal ’14, with textbook sales dropping 23% during that time. UMass Amherst, where Amazon now has a deal to operate a virtual textbook annex, saw its textbook sales decrease by 30% from 2009 to 2013, with used textbook sales decreasing by 62%. UC Davis Stores, which initially had an affiliate deal with Amazon but is now going to let Amazon build on-campus kiosks, saw its revenues drop from $22.9 million in fiscal year 2010-11 to $19.6 million in 2013-14. (B&N reported similar declines in the stores it operates under contract.)
These schools, and many others, see a trend. The presence of a physical college bookstore is not quite as necessary as it was in the 1990s, and rather than try to ignore where things are going these schools are anticipating future change. (B&N also anticipated the future change by spinning off its college bookstores so they can sink on their own.)
In the case of UWM, that anticipation comes in the form of a contract that would appear to copy-paste of Amazon’s contract with Purdue, even down to the requirement that the vendor will supply free two-day shipping to its kiosk, dorms, or on-campus apartments.
Both I and my source thought that this bid was written for Amazon for all practical purposes, but the retailer reportedly only put in a token bid. As a result, the contract went to eCampus, which had a stronger bid and much more experience in this area.
eCampus is best known for its website for buying and selling textbooks, but the company has also been pursuing the virtual bookstore market for far longer than Amazon. According to its site, eCampus now operates over 150 virtual bookstores for high schools, colleges, and universities.
That is only a tithe of the number of stores run by Follett or B&N Education, but it is still far more than the paltry handful of stores operated by Amazon.
P.S. If you should happen to write an article on this story, please be so kind as to link to this post and not the specific PDFs.
image by poeloq