University bookstores struggle to make ends meet

The bookstores are facing more competition from online vendors.
October 23, 2013

As more students are buying their textbooks online, sales at University of Minnesota Bookstores are declining.

University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said the University’s system-wide bookstores need to make changes in order to compete with the online market.

The University of Minnesota Bookstores, which include every bookstore system-wide except one on the Duluth campus, aren’t bankrupt or in a financial crisis — but they are struggling, Pfutzenreuter said.

“The profit is thin,” he said, “They’re not making money hand over fist.”

In the last three years, textbook net sales have fallen by almost $2.8 million.

The Bookstores will continue to expand their inventory of rental and used books to compete with online retailers, said University Bookstores Director Bob Crabb.

“We are going to compete very aggressively and do everything we can,” he said.

Crabb said profits are narrowing because the University has negotiated for lower prices with publishers in recent years, but the expanding online marketplace also affects business.

When Amazon.com started heavily discounting academic textbooks about three years ago, the University started initiating programs like textbook rentals to offset any lost sales, Crabb said.

Students took advantage of the rental program from the start to try and save money, he said.

Currently, about two-thirds of textbooks can be rented. Despite the lower costs for students, Crabb said, the rental program is still profitable for the Bookstores.

“Textbooks as a whole are not profitable, but rentals are not draining us,” he said.

This fall, rented books accounted for about 40 percent of all of the textbook sales.

But even with the less-expensive rental option, some students are still looking for textbooks elsewhere.

Environmental science freshman Alec Hoines said he didn’t buy any of his textbooks from the University Bookstores.

“The deals are more expensive than Amazon,” he said. “They’ll definitely have to change something.”

Geology junior Todd Baumgartner said his professors have encouraged him to buy course books online. He prefers buying online rather than from the University, he said.

With the growing preference for online shopping, the future of trade book sales at the University might face additional obstacles, Crabb said. Like other brick-and-mortar bookstores, the University’s could fall into the national trend of declining sales.

“It’s possible that if we maintain [the] trade store, we’d be pretty unique in the marketplace,” he said. “But that’s a big ‘if.’”

Business and finance sophomore Prima Alam agreed the Bookstores need to change to keep up with the market.

“[The Coffman Union bookstore] is becoming a little worthless,” she said.

As the University moves forward, Pfutzenreuter said he wants to have more discussions about the Bookstores’ budget and business plans.

He said despite the decline in all sales, it’s a necessity for the University.

“Bookstores have had to evolve,” Pfutzenreuter said, “and they’ll have to continue to evolve.”

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