U Book Store Retools to Survive Pandemic — And Amazon

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Image: Wikimedia

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the University Book Store has adapted to the new environment by providing curbside pickup and changing its floor layouts to be more conducive to a new business model focusing on online sales. 

The bookstore’s hybrid model, combining brick-and-mortar store with a heavier emphasis on online sales, is here to stay as a result of what it has learned through the pandemic. 

The most recent transition is just the latest in a long string of adjustments on the part of the bookstore to meet the changing needs of students and the University of Washington in an ever-evolving business environment.

Founded in 1900, the University Book Store started as a student-run business under the Associated Students of the University of Washington but almost went bankrupt four months after opening. It was incorporated in 1932 and became a for-profit corporation to save ASUW from defaulting on its bonds for what is now Alaska Airlines Arena

In 1964, the bookstore converted into a formal trust in which the University Book Store Board of Trustees runs the store for the benefit of UW students, faculty, and staff. The University Book Store’s unique business structure makes it one of the two for-profit, corporate trusts in the country. The other is the University of Wisconsin at Madison bookstore. 

Louise Little, CEO of the University Book Store, said that the COVID-19 pandemic required another transformation in order to keep the bookstore afloat in an unpredictable time.

“It’s changing very rapidly – the industry is – and so we’re doing our best to stay on top of that, to make sure that the students have what they need. Because ultimately, that is our mission – serving the students, faculty, and staff at the University of Washington,” she said. 

The pandemic hit the brick-and-mortar bookstores hard with the closure of 312 bookstores from 2019 to 2020 nationwide in comparison to 98 bookstores from 2018 to 2019, according to the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns. On the other hand, online sales in 2021 are 360% more than that in 2019 during the same week

During the pandemic, the University Book Store closed its location on Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle because operating a business downtown under such an economically challenging situation was impossible. 

“We just couldn’t continue to sustain having a store that we couldn’t keep open,” Little said.  

Just like other retail businesses operating during the pandemic, the bookstore has faced supply chain challenges and labor shortages, according to Little. But having the students back on campus this past academic year increased its sales. (Little declined to offer any specific financial information about the bookstore’s business performance.)

The increase in online purchases of textbooks has also driven some college bookstores to transition into online stores over the past years. Colleges such as the University of California, Santa Cruz, University of Alaska Anchorage, and Virginia Wesleyan University, utilize their former bookstore space for other purposes like resource centers or merchandise shops. 

Brick-and-mortar bookstores like the University Book Store faced two large challenges to their survival during the pandemic: the low number of walk-in sales and increased competition from Amazon and other online booksellers.

The main store on University Way responded quickly to the challenge. Before the spring quarter of 2020, the bookstore flipped its business model from a brick-and-mortar store to an online store within a week. 

“We worked seven days a week, pulling orders and sending them to students,” Little said. 

According to Little, the bookstore has some advantages over Amazon. 

By working with wholesalers, publishers and UW students on the sale of secondhand textbooks, the bookstore is able to provide lower prices. By contrast, many books on Amazon Marketplace are sold through third-party sellers.

And the students provide the bookstore with a built-in base of customers. It has an agreement with the university to provide exactly what’s needed for classes.

Since the pandemic started, the bookstore has also focused more on online sales and increasing the number of textbooks offered online rather than in their brick-and-mortar store. That led to downsizing the textbook area in favor of increased storage and packaging space.

In front of the staircases inside the bookstore, there is no longer a sign that points to the floor below with “textbooks and course supplies.” Textbooks and course materials are now on the top floor and the bottom floor is used for storage and packaging online orders.

On the top floor, there is an empty space for queues for counters where staff help pick out the books students need from the shelves behind the counters. 

Carter Pierce, a senior at the UW and the current vice president of the University Book Store board, said the floor change has worked so well it will likely be permanent.

“I think in the long run, that’s probably going to be beneficial for us just because you kind of realize you don’t need all that extra fluff all the time,” Pierce said. “You don’t need all that extra space. And so it’s nice to kind of have everything in one area.” 

While the bookstore is back to brick-and-mortar operations, e-commerce sales continue to be strong when compared to their pre-pandemic levels. Currently, approximately 25-30% of its sales are online.

The bookstore’s pickup option, as part of the store’s hybrid model, has now become a simple and efficient way of purchasing from the bookstore. 

Students order on the bookstore’s website and then are notified when those orders are ready for picking up. All they need to do is show up at the bookstore and give their identification. 

The whole process can be done within a single day. 

“We have that opportunity for them to order something online, just like they may on Amazon, or whatever,” Pierce said. “But instead, they can walk down the road and pick it up and have it in their hands within an hour.” 

The bookstore is able to process orders and get them ready so quickly because the items it offers are items that it has in stock. Pierce said that they prioritize putting online and curbside pickup orders together quickly.

“That’s something that I think that we’ve been able to do that obviously Amazon doesn’t have the opportunity to do that with students nearby,” Pierce said. 

With its fast processing and close location, the bookstore advantage can help panicked students get things at the very last minute.

“The time and fulfillment of those pickup orders have improved significantly and it’s a huge plus for us,” Pierce said. “Students, you know, if they’re in class and they realize: ‘Oh, shoot, I need this right now or I need this tomorrow, I don’t have time to wait for Amazon to get it here in two to three days or whatever.’”

The bookstore now also offers the option of a free trial for one or two weeks for online textbooks so students have leeway in case they want to drop the class. 

While the pandemic has been very disruptive, the bookstore has also learned valuable lessons that it will take into the next stages.

“It’s just kind of taking the punches, where you take them and then also keep fighting on and moving on,” Pierce said. 

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Daphne Xia is a fourth-year student studying journalism and French at the University of Washington. Born and raised in China, she came to the U.S. to study at 12 and is going to France soon to study abroad. She produced this story in UW's Community News Lab class.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I have years of fond memories of this store. But my best by far is of a cafe employee who treated her patrons with such kindness when I and a few others took refuge therefor hours … that day when the the temperature outdoors reached 107 degrees. The store could have closed. Many Starbucks locations did. But the bookstore and its little coffee shop stayed open. I will not forget that.

  2. I’d add two obstacles for the return of U Bookstore to its former grandeur. One is the loss of retail on University Ave, largely due to the shift of shopping to University Village. The other is a branding problem: U Books has a hard time positioning itself as an independent bookstore, like Elliott Bay and Third Place Books. The general public perceives it as a store serving students and selling textbooks.

    One way to fix this is for the bookstore to build a fancy new store, also transforming the block on which it sits (parking, restaurants, used books, stationery), and maybe combining with a new Alumni House on the same block.

    • Not me. I always liked perusing the shelves. I especially appreciated their ‘new to store’ used book area and wonder when buying used books once again and thus having that set of shelving back would I put the UBookstore back on my ‘go-to’ list.

  3. I understand the constraints that the bookstore is dealing with, and am glad that they’ve managed to stay open so far, but I do miss shelf browsing in the textbooks. When I was a student, I often made a decision about whether to take a course based on what they were reading, and even though that part of my life is long past, I still like to see what faculty have chosen for their classes.

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