‘Perfect storm:’ BYU Store textbook program faces some hiccups

A BYU Student looks for her textbook order in the online order pick up of the BYU Store on Friday, Jan. 22. The store has revamped its client experience when it comes to textbooks due to COVID-19 and as part of a new textbook program. (Sydnee Gonzalez)

The BYU Store’s new textbook program faced some challenges this semester, but store employees are hopeful the program will run more smoothly in the future.

The store’s Student First program, which was launched in Fall 2020, increased the number of textbook rentals available through the store and guarantees the lowest rental book prices by matching any online price at a legitimate textbook vendor.

Although the program’s aim is to have materials ready a week before the start of each semester, the store wasn’t able to process all orders until over a week into the Winter Semester on Wednesday, Jan. 20.

“That is way later than we want,” BYU Store Director Mark Clegg said, adding that, as of Friday afternoon, the store still had 3,010 outstanding sales orders (many just for one item) for back-ordered materials.

One of those orders is that of history junior Kayla Elson, who ordered about 80% of her textbooks from the BYU Store this semester. She received most of her books the second Thursday of classes but is still waiting on two books.

One of the books she received is a book she no longer needs as her class already finished using it. While she recommended buying books from the BYU Store in general, she also emphasized the need to order as early as possible.

“The later you order, the longer it takes,” said Elson, who didn’t order until after the semester had started. “I feel like if I had ordered sooner, I would either have them or I would have been able to maybe cancel my (BYU) order and just order off of Amazon because I would rather like pay one or two extra dollars off of Amazon to have it the next day than wait like three weeks for my book.”

Overcoming challenges

“There were a lot of perfect storm impacts going on for the transition between fall and winter this particular time, but those, hopefully, were unique and will not apply to the future, even though it is still complex,” Clegg said.

BYU’s decision to transition to remote class after Thanksgiving, for example, meant many students who went out of state for the end of Fall Semester didn’t return their rental books until after Winter Semester had already started. This left the BYU Store with an inventory deficit as it placed orders for this semester. Nation-wide shipping delays also slowed down the attainment of new inventory.

Other factors come along with the nature of launching a new program. The store significantly underestimated the demand for rentals, which Clegg said has increased over tenfold — a much greater increase than the 50% the book store had anticipated.

In Winter 2020, the store rented just over 9,000 books. This semester, the store has rented over 120,000 books. While a portion of those were auto-filled orders for freshmen and may be returned if those students choose to opt-out of the program, many of those were orders students placed themselves, according to Clegg.

The store also faced issues that likely won’t go away when the pandemic is over, such as last-minute additions of class sections or late adoption of required course materials by faculty.

“There are a lot of complexities that I don’t think sometimes students fully appreciate,” Clegg said.

He added that it’s difficult to know for certain when all of the store’s backordered items will be available since each item’s situation is unique based on national supply and demand and whether a book had to be special ordered.

“We just work as fast as we can,” he said.

A new system

Both the pandemic and the Student First program have drastically changed how the top floor of the BYU Store operates.

Under the new program, the BYU Store automatically pulls all required materials for freshmen. This autofill system will eventually expand to all students by 2023. Students are under no obligation to purchase auto-ordered books, but Clegg hopes the price-match guarantee paired with the convenience of an automatic order will win over students.

Freshmen who do want to take advantage of the auto-filled orders as well as other students who placed orders online receive an email once their orders are ready and can then pick them up from the store (or have the books shipped to them).

Students also have the option to complete a walk-up order by printing off their booklist at one of the BYU Store’s kiosks, circling which materials they’d like to purchase, and then handing the list over for an employee to fill on the spot. This system was implemented to reduce contact during the pandemic, and Clegg isn’t yet sure whether it’ll stick around post-COVID-19.

BYU Store’s new textbook pickup process

Taking some risks

Currently, the BYU Store is experiencing less revenue from textbooks in the past, despite an overwhelmingly large increase in demand. That’s because of the store’s switch to a rental model, which allows the store to offer lower prices by spreading out the revenue it receives from each book over multiple rental periods.

The switch, and the program in general, represent a good faith effort to win back student’s business and to live up to its mission of helping students, according to Clegg. Prior to the program, the store didn’t have a solid pricing strategy.

“In essence it was, we go buy from a publisher, we mark it up a little bit to cover our overhead, and then we try and sell it to a student,” he said. “We didn’t even look to see what’s Amazon’s price, what’s Chegg’s price.”

By 2023, the BYU Store will stock 100% of the required materials for each student for every single class at BYU. For example, if a professor decides to use a 2021 edition of a book for an 80-student class, the store would buy 80 textbooks and hope to turn a profit.

It’s an inventory risk, but Clegg hopes over time students will come to see the benefits of the program.

BYU physics and astronomy major Isaac Jensen, however, is concerned that despite its convience, the program may hurt students financially.

“It has the potential for people’s apathy to outweigh (their desire to save money),” he said, adding that the convenience of the auto-filled orders means there’s less incentive for students to consider outside options.

Clegg said he understands some of the apprehension students have, admitting that the store could have done a better job of raising awareness about the program prior to its launch.

“I’ve been on (students’) side, so I can understand either the cynicism or skepticism,” Clegg said. “But we are fully committed to living what we believe is one of our missions, which is to help students succeed in the classroom.”

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