COUNCIL Year-End Reports on the April 19 Agenda
Report of the Bookstore, 1999-2000
This report has seven substantive sections. These comment on the organizational background to the Committee's work, the Bookstore's merchandising of texts, beginning-of-term logistics, merchandising of non-text books, the Bookstore's provision of miscellaneous other products and services, the Bookstore's impact on local independent bookstores, and the viability of alternative channels for providing texts. A summary concludes. The Committee also spent some time this year on an ad hoc matter, and that is reported and its actions and findings are reported in an Addendum.
1. Organizational background
The Bookstore is operated, in a facility owned by the University, by the College Division of Barnes & Noble under contract to the University. Within the University administration, Business Services oversees the execution of the contract and is responsible, more broadly, for overseeing Barnes & Noble's performance. The University Council represents many constituencies in the University and has chosen to have a standing committee on the Bookstore. The relationship between the Bookstore Committee and Business Services is unclear. Business Services seems to take the view that the Committee is there to help Business Services and, indeed, seems to view this in a rather restrictive way. It was difficult, for example, to learn the details of contractual terms germane to the substance of this report; and, having provided the Committee chair a confidential review of terms specifically requested, Business Services offered only that these terms might be paraphrased and this only if the paraphrase were approved in advance. Two of the terms of interest concern the merchandising policies and the faculty discount policy Barnes & Noble in fact committed to. Business Services says there is a confidentiality clause in the contract, but this is clearly not an insuperable obstacle. It would be useful to clarify what the underlying relationship is as a context for further work on these and any other matters that may seem important to Council.
2. The Bookstore's merchandising of texts
There are ongoing problems concerning the timely provision of texts by the Bookstore. These are the fault of the Faculty and not of the Bookstore management. There is no hope of timely physical provision of texts unless the orders are received in a timely fashion, and many of the text orders simply do not reach the Bookstore soon enough. Exhortations to date do not seem to be solving this problem. The Committee wonders whether some sort of financial incentive to the Departments offering courses along the lines used by Wharton Reprographics for bulkpack submission--Reprographics passes on the peak-load costs it would otherwise incur in exchange for being able to avoid them--might be helpful, though it is not clear in this case where the money would come from. Alternatively, perhaps the exhortations should be passed on via Department chairs (who may have more influence over faculty behavior than the administrators who currently relay the requests).
3. Beginning-of-term logistics
The news on getting texts which are on the shelves into students' hands is, in contrast, good. There had been significant problems in past years with long lines and delays at the check-out registers just before and during the first week of term. Extensive spot-checks in January suggest that the Bookstore now has this under control.
4. Merchandising of non-text books
The Bookstore's merchandising of non-text books is a much more vexed problem. The Committee took as a given the amount of floor- and shelfspace allocated to this. The questions we focused on concerned the allocation of that space across broad subject categories, the selection of titles within the categories, the organization of the books within the categories, and the state of order of books on the shelves.
We investigated six categories in detail. These were European history, American history, sociology and political science, art and landscape architecture, and engineering. The set includes the largest categories and also some specialist ones. Volunteer investigators from the faculty and Van Pelt professional staff were asked to assess the selection (what was there, what was not) and the ease with which a customer would be able to locate a book which was in fact in stock.
An edited and consolidated version of the reports will be submitted as background to the Council chair. In general, the Committee and the investigators had the impression from publicity at the time of the announcement of the Barnes & Noble contract and at the time of the opening of the new store that the standard of merchandising would be that of a first-class academic bookstore. The reports indicate fairly consistent disappointment relative to this standard on four main dimensions.
The relative allocation of space to broad topic categories and the physical contiguities of the spaces in question are sometimes problematic. The Bookstore management has indicated a desire to improve this and has offered to share sales data (by space in category) in aid of a cooperative approach. This is promising but the task--remaining for next year--is substantial.
The selection of books within categories is the heart of the problem. The charitable interpretation of the reports is that the Barnes & Noble buyers and the individuals in the store with power to buy are not receiving the information required to stock the shelves as we understood they would be stocked. The problem does not appear to be the absence of specific titles so much as the absence of institutions to make routine the flow of this sort of information. We have several suggestions, though we want to emphasize in all cases that the responsibility for proper stocking clearly ultimately rests with Barnes & Noble. The University Library employs a staff of bibliographers whose job it is to monitor new offerings and select which books the University should buy. It would be desirable to routinize contact between the bibliographers and those who do the Bookstore's buying in the relevant categories. University faculty members are also often aware of new titles; and if it were easier to convey their ideas to the Bookstore staff, we believe more suggestions would flow. The Bookstore has a website, and it would be desirable (and apparently not difficult) to modify the website design to create a swift and reliable channel for such suggestions. Finally, we wonder whether it would be possible to get the Library's Franklin software to generate lists of new acquisitions by broad subject categories. Once generated, such lists could be made available at essentially zero marginal cost to all concerned bookstores and, for that matter, to interested parties in the broader University community. There seems to be good will on all sides to explore these possibilities over the coming year.
The problems with subcategories are twofold. Sometimes the subcategories do not seem as helpful as they might be, and many books the Bookstore stocks do not fit into one specific category in any simple way. The latter at least would not be a problem with an electronic shelflist and a search engine, given the general facility members of the University community increasingly have in using these. These resources exist: the Bookstore staff use (very full) versions of them to answer questions. Access to some version of such resources, if the shelflist also gave shelf locations, would also make it easier to find books without consulting the Bookstore staff. Indeed, on-line access to such capabilities would help potential customers figure out whether a trip to the Bookstore would be useful. It is not current Barnes & Noble policy to make use of their terminals available to the customers, never mind to offer on-line access to the shelflist; and the local management seems to be powerless to change this. We have the impression that an official expression of interest to Barnes & Noble in having Barnes & Noble develop these capabilities might be helpful.
Finally, the books were also often observed to be out of order. This is a simpler problem and merely requires more frequent review and reshelving than happens at present. Again, management is amenable.
5. The Bookstore's provision of miscellaneous other products and services
We did not devote systematic attention this year to the Bookstore's provision of Miscellaneous other products and services but did look into photographic services. In the old store and in the beginning in the new one, there was an area in which photo services such as processing and the sale of film, cameras and accessories were offered. It usually seemed busy and the prices were superior to alternative local offerings. The area has disappeared and been replaced by a drop-off and pick-up film service staffed by not particularly knowledgeable cashiers. We have had discussions with the Bookstore management who have undertaken to report back as to why the level of service was cut back and to seek staff training from Kodak (the film processor) or other sources.
6. The Bookstore's impact on local independent bookstores
The Committee did not spend time this year investigating the impact of the new Bookstore arrangements on the local independent bookstores. It seemed to us that the main threat to the old equilibrium would be radically changed Bookstore merchandising. We do not think such change has occurred to date, but this is merely an impression and the Committee should take more careful soundings next year. We also note that the financial health of the independent stores may well be very sensitive to their ability to retain their current text trade. The University should be very cautious about mandating changes, such as those proposed by the Bookstore manager several years ago, which might undermine this without careful study.
7. Viability of alternative channels for providing texts
Questions have been raised as to whether University students should obtain their texts from on-line distributors instead of from physical bookstores, in particular from the University Bookstore. We did not have time to investigate this in detail but can offer several general observations. There is evidence to suggest that carrying the textbooks is profitable and offers revenue streams which are useful in cross-subsidizing less financially attractive uses of store space which are, nonetheless, good for the community (e.g. shelves with more specialized academic books). Barnes & Noble is a very large customer of the textbook publishers and presumably can exploit this to assure supply. Finally, the Bookstore can and does facilitate a broad second-hand market in texts (many of which have become very expensive in recent years) given that it sells textbooks on a regular basis. Providing textbooks from a bricks-and-mortar store is inevitably more expensive than providing them directly from warehouses; but there may be offsetting advantages. Again, this is a question which requires detailed study (assuming, of course, that the contract does not already commit the University to one particular answer.)
The new facility is in itself a tremendous improvement, but the ultimate quality of the Bookstore will depend upon objectives and execution. Good will seems to exist on all sides, but good will alone may not be enough. Our investigations took place well into the second academic year in the new facility. We felt we observed some real deficiencies and concluded that some structural changes in how certain specific tasks and activities are carried out are in order. It is very clear that ongoing diplomacy, operations-oriented interaction with the Bookstore management and staff, and general oversight are in order.
--Daniel Raff, Chair
The Committee received a request from a member of the University community to restrict the availability of sexually explicit materials in the Bookstore. The Committee considered the request, consulted with members of the faculty with relevant expertise and with the chair of the Committee on Open Expression, and concluded that it was not appropriate to pursue the recommendation. Complete background materials submitted by the community members who spoke with the Committee, minutes of the meetings in which they spoke, and the memorandum giving the Committee's reasoning and detailed conclusions are on file in the Office of the Secretary.
Faculty: Ted Chinburg, math; John Dixon Hunt, landscape architecture; Noam Lior, mechanical engineering; Daniel Raff, (Chair), management; John Richetti, English; Karen B. Wilkerson, nursing. Gradute students: Danielle Kane, GAS '01; Yiqun Hui, BMP '04. Undergraduate students: Kathryn Whitfield, SAS '02; PPSA: Michael Ryan, library special collections; Jennifer Conway, Penn Humanities Forum; Laura Waldron, Penn Press. A-3: Tanya Carey, Center Advanced Study of India. Ex officio: Lisa Prasad, associate vice president business development.
Almanac, Vol. 46, No. 29, April 18, 2000