University Book Store Goes Back to School, Upgrading Ecommerce, POS, Back-Office Solutions to Better Serve UW Students and Community

Posted by Ian McCue, Content Manager

As the name indicates, University Book Store is a campus bookstore, but it’s much more than that. The independent bookstore for the University of Washington sells not only the standard lineup of textbooks, school supplies and Husky apparel, but also trade books that would be found at any local bookstore, non-school-themed apparel, technology and cosmetics.

University Book Store serves not just students, faculty and staff, but the local community as well, with five stores sprinkled throughout Seattle and the Puget Sound area. Its flagship store is located just off-campus in Seattle’s U District. That 100,000-square-foot store on “The Ave� accounts for about 85% of the retailer’s sales.

“I’d say we’re more like a Macy’s or Nordstrom than we are a Barnes & Noble, just because we have so many different departments,� University Book Store CIO Erin Olinick said. “We’re really known as being the one-stop campus shop.�

The Book Store sells textbooks for not only the University of Washington’s main campus but UW’s Tacoma and Bothell locations, two other nearby colleges and 14 private high schools.

Struggling with Omnichannel Demands

While University Book Store’s business model is unique, it faces the same challenges as just about any retailer. Its customers’ expectations are higher than ever before as they demand a combination of convenience, speed and highly competitive prices. Meeting those expectations is imperative as the Book Store faces intense competition from Amazon, book publishers selling direct to students and other online shops.

University Book Store did its best to adapt to a rapidly changing retail landscape, but a legacy RATEX solution was an unavoidable roadblock. The 35-year-old system, built on Linux and locally hosted, managed accounting, point-of-sale and inventory. Employees had to decipher the RATEX system’s black-and-white, MS DOS-like user interface (you’re forgiven if you’re unfamiliar with all of that; suffice to say, the technology was archaic). Only one employee knew how to code the system and became the gatekeeper for any software modifications.

Additionally, University Book Store’s homegrown ecommerce solution involved a complex layering of servers that received point-of-sale and inventory information through an API that updated every 24 hours. The result was often inaccurate inventory data that frustrated shoppers and staff.

“The system was absolutely impeding our ability to move forward and remain relevant in a really quickly moving and competitive industry,� Olinick said.

Moving Beyond Industry Solutions

After the Book Store determined it needed to overhaul its technology stack, it first turned to long-standing industry solutions from MBS Textbook Exchange, Nebraska Book Co. and Visual RATEX (a newer version of its current system).

It was not until Olinick’s team heard about The Duck Store at the University of Oregon using NetSuite that it considered the cloud-based, unified business management platform. University Book Store eventually chose NetSuite over Visual RATEX because it could provide a unified source of data from across the company that could help break down departmental siloes and improve communication.

“We really felt that NetSuite had the potential to push us to evolve and think in a much broader way,� Olinick said. “It really made us uncomfortable in a lot of ways, but that was something that we actually embraced, because we firmly believed that NetSuite would finally allow us to compete with other retailers, and our competition is not other bookstores, it’s other retailers.�

The versatile solution could support every aspect of the business, including ecommerce, point-of-sale, email marketing and back-end operations like financials, inventory management, order management and fulfillment.

Creating a Better Customer Experience 

When customers visit the retailer’s online store, they can now add textbooks, clothing and headphones, for example, to a single cart instead of checking out multiple times for different departments. That streamlined process has helped increase order size and allows the company to cross-sell by taking advantage of product recommendations.

Today, shoppers can pick up their online orders in any University Book Store location same-day or pay for express shipping and preorder products before the store even receives them. Students can also sign up for a textbook rental account on the ecommerce site.

In-store, students can pay with their school-issued Husky Card. If a textbook is out-of-stock, the store can offer students an e-book version immediately instead of potentially losing the sale like in the past. About 12% of the retailer’s course materials revenue now comes from digital products like e-books and access codes, up from 3% with the old system. 

Internally, NetSuite ERP provides a single source of data with automated reports on every aspect of the business, a vast improvement over manual reports in spreadsheets that required data entry. For example, it’s now easy for the Book Store to see the profitability of items or track expenses by location or department instead of trying to dig up high-level information in a massive spreadsheet. On the vendor side, it can view credit balances by supplier and outstanding checks to better manage cash flow. Those insights help the retailer make informed decisions about pricing and promotions.

 Access to more detailed customer data, including where they shop and how much they spend, allows the store to send more personalized emails to various customer segments through the Bronto marketing platform. That’s led to a big bump in the ROI of University Book Store’s email campaigns.

Additionally, the Book Store can look at how many customers are purchasing digital copies of textbooks to reduce procurement of physical copies. That has lowered both shipping and handling costs and inventory carrying expenses.

But those quantitative benefits are second to the increased collaboration and employee empowerment provided by a system that everyone can access.

“My favorite thing about NetSuite is that my staff has really kind of become their own business owners, job owners,� said Matt Schleede, course materials manager. “They all have responsibilities on a daily, weekly, monthly basis and they’ve been able to run their own reports and kind of relearn how to do their jobs in a way that makes themselves more efficient. When they’re working to their best of their abilities … it makes the business more efficient.�

University Book Store continues to recognize new gains as it takes advantage of more aspects of the platform’s capabilities. It sees this as only the beginning of a long journey.

The nearly 120-year-old company is ready for the future and the ever-changing expectations of its customers with a solution that has the flexibility and backing to evolve with it.

“It’s pretty amazing to know our systems and processes are not stuck in one place anymore,� Olinick said.
“The collaborative environment we now have with staff asking each other questions is helping us to crack open the areas of our business that we didn’t have visibility into before, because things were so automated and so hidden in our old system that we weren’t able to make changes to them.�

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