The Why Of Price Comparison

The last ten years in higher ed course materials have brought about a lot of change, particularly in student behavior. What's something college stores can do to stay relevant amid these ever-changing market trends? Appeal to increasingly price-conscious student consumers by embracing market transparency. If you aren’t yet offering price comparison at your store (or have chosen not to), here are five important benefits for you to consider:


1. Increase Customer Trust

There is an unfortunate misconception among students that the college store is the most expensive place to acquire textbooks. A price comparison engine that offers an objective lens for students to view their course material sourcing options overcomes that misunderstanding and signals to students that their college store isn’t the predatory enterprise it is too often made out to be. Utilizing such a tool is a grand gesture to students that the college store is in business to foster student success in any way they best can.


2. Gain New Sales

Many students are already utilizing price comparison engines online to research their course material sourcing options. However, none of these online engines currently include the local options of the college store -- meaning, a significant amount of students may acquire their materials elsewhere unaware of how competitive their college store actually is. By hosting a personalized price comparison engine, local store options can counter online retailers’ for the first time. This invites the most savvy and price conscious buyers on campus back to the college store, all while leveraging a powerful store differentiator: convenience. Market behavior has proven that a price difference of only a few dollars is negligible to students (and the convenience and accuracy of the college store will win out).


3. Monetize Lost Sales

Of course, when the price difference is more than a few dollars, there is the risk that sales will be lost to other online vendors. Although counterintuitive, it’s important to keep in mind that those most likely would have been lost sales for the store anyway. By hosting price comparison for campus, the college store gets to monetize those lost sales with referral commission. This is a revenue stream previously left on the table, available for other vendors to re-invest in the strategic practices that won them the sale in the first place.


4. Impress Campus Leadership

There is something to be said about an enterprise that is willing to offer students complete market transparency and freedom of choice, at the potential risk of a few lost sales. It drastically separates an independent store doing its best to objectively serve students affordable course materials, from a lease operator in pursuit of profit and power. These lease operators may or may not currently be talking to your campus leadership. Regardless, positioning your store up as an objective, early advocate of student affordability and accessibility is a powerful value-add opportunity that only solidifies your place on campus now (and forever).


5. Maximize Store Value

With Hero, the potential doesn’t end with price comparison. Utilizing Hero to power price comparison lays the fundamental infrastructure necessary for college stores to do so much more: productive faculty engagement, scalable inclusive access and digital negotiation, and effective OER campaigns (to name just a few). Unlike other price comparison tools currently available to college stores at a hefty price, Hero establishes a framework that allows college stores to truly stand out and make a difference -- at a fraction of the price.


Don’t wait any longer to harness the power of price comparison. Get started today and see what Hero can do for you!

Emergency Webinars: Staying Independent!

Independent Stores at Risk

We need to talk. In our recent work with several stores facing an open RFP, we've become aware of the increasingly competitive leasing programs that are capturing the interest of campus leadership. The threat from lease operators has never been so potent -- and if college stores are only communicating their value to campus in terms of dollars and cents, they are at risk

In the past few months, we've held two emergency webinars to discuss the inherent advantage of independence and how this advantage can differentiate against lease competition. By taking action, independent stores can provide unparalleled value to campus and make even the thought of going leased a PR nightmare.

To watch the emergency webinars, click the videos below and enter the password "independent" when prompted.


(Part 1) Emergency Webinar: Staying Independent!
Make a case. Understand your value. Know your facts.
Speakers: Alan Martin (CEO, Sidewalk) & Jason Lorgan (Director, UC Davis)
Sponsored By: Sidewalk, CACS, ICBA & indiCo

Emergency Webinar Video 1


(Part 2) Emergency Webinar: Staying Independent!
The Intrinsic Value Of Independent Bookstores: Know it. Do it. Prove it.
Speaker: Alan Martin (CEO, Sidewalk)

Emergency Webinar Video 2

(Part 3) Emergency Webinar: Staying Independent!
Why. What. And now, How.
Speaker: Alan Martin (CEO, Sidewalk)

Emergency Webinar: Staying Independent! (Part 3)

Unsustainable Course Materials

If there’s a weird market in economics, it’s textbooks.

Most markets follow a set of basic principles -- things like supply and demand, response to incentives, and a roughly equal push-and-pull between providers and consumers to determine prices. The consumers are the ultimate decision-makers; they determine a product’s value, whether it should be consumed and its rate of consumption. They don’t do anything they don’t want to do, and suppliers compete against one another in response. You can read more about markets in Harvard economist Greg Mankiw’s outstanding Principles of Microeconomics, the 7th edition of which will cost you about $230 (or you can rent it for about $30) – but generally, it’s a pretty efficient and balanced system.

The economics of college course materials is different. The buyer -- the student -- has no say in what’s adopted for each class. He or she can only decide whether to buy, and they’re at a disadvantage in the classroom if they don’t make the purchase.


The real decision-makers are faculty who make textbook adoption decisions for their course curriculum. The faculty’s business is teaching. No matter how student-centered their selection process, professors have limited information to assess the value of potential content options. Instead they depend on publishers, just five of whom control 80% of the market. In a US PIRG survey, 77% of faculty respondents reported that publishers “rarely or never report the price” of a text during sales transactions. Faculty are largely unaware of the financial burden their content decisions are placing on students. It’s ok if a professor wants to adopt a $300 textbook. It’s not ok if they don’t know it’s a $300 textbook. (The student, of course, will eventually find out the hard way). These market forces culminate in an epidemic in Higher Ed: far too many students choosing to forego texts because of price.

Textbooks 3x Inflation


Source: NBC News

The cost of textbooks has risen 3x the rate of inflation since 1984. The College Board recommends a budget of $1,200 per year for course materials, amounting to $4,800 over a 4-year span -- assuming students will procure all required materials. The National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent data shows a 6-year graduation rate of 59% for a 4-year degree resulting from (but not limited to) failed classes, rejected transfer credits, switched majors, and doubled majors/minors. This potentially raises that budget upwards of $7,200. It's also prudent to factor in 2016’s “Cover The Cost” report that found nearly 1 in 3 students use financial aid to purchase textbooks. (For community college students, that statistic is closer to 50%.) A borrower paying back $4,800+ in student loans processed at the current federal rate of 4.29% for undergraduates will, after a 10-year repayment period, equate to an additional $1,090 in interest payments.

The rise of textbook costs is a pervasive problem that needs to be resolved and can only seemingly be resolved by working with faculty. In the US PIRG survey, 94% of faculty surveyed testified that they’d choose the less expensive of two equivalent texts; which has been confirmed in our own market research. Faculty are sensitive to price and they desire value for their students. They just need adequate information to do so – a big value-add opportunity for the college store.

With transparency at the point of adoption, faculty can factor both quality and cost of a text, encouraging negotiation with publishers and/or higher-value alternatives. Students win by paying less for high-quality materials and faculty win by ensuring their students actually buy the course materials they assign to succeed in class, increasing their chances of success.

The independent college store should be at the center of this process as a hub of content and conduit for information faculty desperately need. Course content will continue to change – its price, its formats, its distribution – but the role of the college store should not.

For more info on our Hero tool, please contact your Sidewalk representative or email



Better Content To Campus

College stores manage the logistics of knowledge. Just as Napoleon and Frederick the Great said that “an army marches on its stomach,” a college’s ability to successfully educate its students hinges on the availability and quality of course materials. On a college campus, the college store can be the quartermaster who makes it all happen.

It’s 2016 – 8 years after the reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, designed in part to enhance transparency and encourage affordability for faculty during content selection. And yet, the cost of textbooks only seems to be rising.

Independent college stores know the textbook game as well as anyone – how publishers court professors, why professors select texts, how students go about procuring them, and what it takes to meet everyone’s needs. They are caught between publishers and students, squarely in the center of the ‘principal-agent problem,’ — and as the adjoining entity, it falls to the college store to prevent market failure and become the campus’ hub of knowledge distribution. In order to do so, college stores must understand why better, more affordable course materials aren’t making it to campus in the first place.

You Can’t Sell What Faculty Don’t See

The textbook marketplace might be changing quickly, but the textbook discovery process has not. Faculty and academic departments, the true buyer of content (the entity deciding which content to use and purchase), largely discover content when publishers knock on their door to pitch texts. Teachers and department heads deliberate on the proposed materials and select them as their final adoption unaware of the final cost to the student. Those books then make their way into syllabi and students buy them (or choose not to).

Faculty Experience with OER

Data Source: Campus Computing

With the litany of responsibilities that come with teaching in 2016, from administrative work to meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse student body, faculty don’t have the time or resources to single-handedly research the incalculable number of available options from other publishers and creators. Adjuncts, whose numbers continue to grow, are especially strained by heavy teaching loads and limited input. The 2016 Campus Computing Faculty Survey for ICBA revealed that 39% of faculty surveyed had never heard of OER with another 36% indicating they knew a little, but had never used or reviewed OER materials. Further, a 2014 US PIRG survey showed that just 23% of professors rated publisher websites as “informative and easy to use.” As the true buyer of content, faculty bear a huge responsibility. They want to select the best and most affordable course materials available for their students, but they don’t have the tools to help them in the content discovery process.

Students Take What They Can Get

At the end of this chain of publishing, sales, and distribution, stands the student — stuck with a textbook and subsequent cost they have little control over. Rather than being able to focus solely  on their studies, they are distracted with the procurement and stress of unaffordable materials. They resort to an assortment of online retailers, inconsistent formats, sharing arrangements, pirated copies, or refusing to purchase the material all together. Victim to a tightly controlled distribution process, they become frustrated that their champions – faculty and the college store – appear indifferent to their financial burden.

Remember The Quartermaster

Affordable Curricula

There is an entity perfectly positioned to realign the market and bring value to the surface: the independent college store. By becoming a hub of content knowledge that connects professors with the content they want at a price point students need, the college store is able to fulfill an important campus function. The college store can save the entire process – providing a channel for the efficient distribution of course materials by facilitating the discovery and selection of high-quality, affordable curricula.

There are tools available to help college stores adapt to the changing course materials marketplace in a way that provides better service to students through better service to faculty. With a combination of content discovery tools that benefit professors and sales/communication tools that benefit students, independent college stores are able to solve a problem they are perfectly positioned to solve.

For more info on our Hero tool, please contact your Sidewalk representative or email

Sales 101 Lessons For College Stores

Independent college stores are expert at selling course materials and merchandise to students, but they aren't always as good at selling their own value proposition to campus leadership. As a result of this communication failure, numerous college stores across the US are finding themselves at risk of being traded for lease operators. By employing the following sales techniques, independent college stores can more effectively communicate their value proposition to campus leadership and thwart the efforts of lease operators.

Listen, Then Listen More


Listening is the foundation of sales, because it unlocks critical prospect insights. Listening closely can reveal campus leadership's highest priorities and expectations for the store.

Unfortunately, listening is the most underutilized skill in sales – limiting powerful opportunities for personalization. In conversations with campus leadership, stores should try to employ the "80/20" rule. This rule requires active listening for 80% of conversation, and limits contextual responses to the other 20%. Stores should also employ this principle in conversations campus-wide. What is the student newspaper saying? What is the president saying publicly or in interviews about the cost of content? What program is your campus considering to get content into the hands of more students? Lease operators know how to uncover these cues and utilize them to their advantage.

The pain points felt by leadership at every campus vary widely – and the only way to uncover them is through active listening. By doing so, college stores can customize their efforts to what is most important to campus leadership, making lease proposals irrelevant and/or unnecessary.

Quantify Value With Data

"Actions speak louder than words."

Data is designed to expose the truth, good or bad. It measures actual impact and encourages insightful decisions. Independent college stores provide many unique services to campus. Some of those services are easy to quantify (like sales). Others are far less easy to quantify (like timely delivery of content into students' hands and impact on student outcomes). By identifying areas of "soft data" and developing a process for collection, independent stores can create a more complete and competitive profile of the value they add to campus and the academic mission.

The Power Of “Why”

Simon Sinek Quote

In the TED talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action, Simon Sinek highlights the importance of selling the WHY before the HOW and the HOW before the WHAT. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Value campaigns that start with “why” offer a powerful framework that focuses on unique business values that are hard to imitate, instead of features that are easy to replicate. Similar features with different underlying values can create vastly different results long term.

At the end of the day, independent college stores are tied to the Academic Mission and the betterment of education. Lease operators, as part of a for-profit corporation, are tied to their bottom line. Inherently, independent college stores have a “why” that speaks much more powerfully to campus leadership. It provides context to their altruistic purpose and long-term campus value: acting in the best interest of their students, even at the expense of profit.

Always Be Closing The Sale

Lease operators are actively courting college leadership for a place on campus. With large sales forces and budgets 2,000x larger than the average independent store, they are able to gain considerable traction -- often unknowingly -- which puts the independent college store at risk.  Independent college stores have to similarly vie for the ears and attention of campus leadership, utilizing a very important and exclusive home court advantage: constant proximity.

In order for independent college stores to remain competitive, they need to always be advocating their value. They can do this by keeping key campus personnel up-to-date on store initiatives and data. If a store has a quarterly report, it’s important to make sure campus leadership is reading it. If campus leadership has office hours, it’s crucial for stores to drop by to discuss how they are working towards their needs. If stores are pursuing new initiatives, they should be informing campus leadership of feedback and progress real-time. With frequent, positive communication, college stores can build a connection with campus leadership that will make them less likely to consider the far less personal lease proposals that reach their desk.

Over-Communicate For Clarity

When squared against large for-profit corporations, independent college stores need a voice loud enough to dominate the conversation. In Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage, it is suggested that people are skeptical about messages unless they hear it consistently over time, in a variety of different situations, and preferably from different people.

Stores need to embed the need for and value of their independence in every conversation they have – from students to employees to faculty to parents to campus leadership. By doing so, the store’s value is reinforced from all campus angles, allowing campus leadership to more readily embrace the store and its value proposition with conviction.

Independent college stores that leverage simple sales skills with campus leadership are more readily able to secure a strong, stable place on campus.


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