Behind the scenes at the Illini Union Bookstore

By Vishesh Anand, Staff Writer

When students returned to campus this fall and made their way to the Illini Union Bookstore for their school supplies, Tod Petrie, store director, thought they were prepared for everything. It turns out that was not quite true.

Within the first week of classes, they ran out of iClickers.

Due to a miscommunication between instructors and bookstore managers, they failed to order enough despite ordering 2,000 more than was required.

Even though they had ordered 2,000 more than was required, it wasn’t enough. The store sold out of iClickers on Aug. 28. Petrie put in a new order instantly, but it was no consolation. He soon learned their circumstances were exacerbated as the shipment, scheduled for delivery on Aug. 30, was severely delayed.

For the sake of the students, Petrie and his colleagues attempted to intercept the shipment. Their first attempt in Rock Island was unsuccessful. But on Sep. 1, they managed to cut off the carrier in Peoria and bring the iClickers to the store for sale later that day, raher than waiting for the later shipment to arrive.

“Those are the kind of things that we do that no one sees and are behind the scenes,” Petrie said. “But, the students need it.”

Despite this, Petrie claims this back-to-school season, or as bookstore insiders call it, “the book rush,” has been softer than expected.

Rose Yamin, a senior in LAS and lead student supervisor at the bookstore, agrees with Petrie, but adds it’s still busier than when she started working at the bookstore in August 2015.

She attributes the gradual increase in sales and traffic at the bookstore to a different store configuration and weakened on-campus competition, considering T.I.S. College Bookstore rebranded itself as The Illini Shop and stopped selling textbooks in August 2016.

Vedant Jain, senior in Engineering, said he would typically buy from T.I.S. and was reluctant to go to the bookstore at first.

“It’s usually too crowded, and there’s never enough people at the counters,” he said. “But, I guess they try to do the best they can with what they have.”

Yamin and Petrie remember the beginning of the semester in 2016 as the busiest the bookstore has ever been. According to his calculations, Petrie had decided to order 25 percent more of everything to account for the market share they would be taking over, but it was still not enough.

There was a 45 percent increase in year-over-year sales for the season, according to the bookstore’s accounts.

During busy times like this, Petrie often receives complaints about the long, snaking lines. He always responds with the same answer.

“We only have 19 full-time employees, and there’s about 40,000 students on campus. Just think about it; do the math! It doesn’t work,” he said. “But, we try to do our best.”

Yamin contends apart from the fall and spring back-to-school rush, the bookstore is a rather casual selling environment.

“Once the rush is over, the store is a lot quieter and relaxed. It’s just cruising from there,” she said. “Kids will come in buying their non-scientific calculators, or grabbing pencils just before a test.”

Although, there are some events that draw in more than the usual amount of customers, like the Summer Orientation in June. There’s some single-day rushes throughout the year as well for Moms Weekend, Homecoming, Dads Weekend and graduation, listed in decreasing order of sales and traffic.

About a 10-week period — the fall and spring rush along with summer orientation — in the bookstore’s fiscal year brings in nearly 50 percent of its total sales.

To prepare for each season, Petrie said operations on the back end of the store run in overdrive for the three months leading up to the start of each semester.  

In addition to meticulously progressing through their 151-point back-to-school preparation checklist that was Petrie compiled, every semester, the management staff at the bookstore has to make purchasing decisions for about 5,000 titles.

According to the bookstore’s accounts, only 60 percent of all sales are from books, and Petrie expects this number to continue shrinking.

There’s also a tedious recruitment process in preparation for the rush seasons, Petrie said. The bookstore hires and trains approximately 200 part-time employees every semester, but it only retains about 85 after the busiest times have passed.

Meanwhile, Petrie is also preparing the bookstore for what lies ahead.

“The future of the bookstore is interesting because there’s this thing called digital titles, and they’re coming in fast and furious,” he said. “They’re more than ‘just an e-book.’”

Digital titles will be publications that have an interactive multimedia component like videos, flashcards and quizzes.

Additionally, Petrie is also working on an ‘inclusive access’ technology, which will provide all students with free access to all course materials on the first day of class. But after two weeks, access will be restricted until students pay for the material.

Petrie intends to test the system in the coming spring and is excited by its prospects, which he said will decrease the price for students — he expects the average book price will be around $40 in the near future — and increase the percentage of students the bookstore is selling to.

Meanwhile, Petrie wishes more students would utilize the bookstore’s website, which would ease traffic at the store. Currently, the website receives only roughly 3,500 orders per semester.

He said they also consult with other University system bookstores, the National Association of College Stores and the Independent College Bookstore Association.

Petrie also defends some of the bookstore’s controversial decisions, like bringing an Amazon hotspot in-house, which he says hasn’t impacted business at all.

“By bringing them here, we made it safer for students to use, negotiated a better price for student Prime and free, easier returns. The industry (is) totally scared to death,” he said. “‘Why are you bringing in the big, bad Amazon? They’re taking away your business.’ Well, they already did, so you better just deal with it.”

Above all, Petrie just wants what’s mutually beneficial for the students and the University in the fast-changing industry.

“The future, though, will be constantly changing. While the industry didn’t change for a lot of years, now it’s changing very rapidly,” Petrie said. “There will be more collaborations that are (beneficial) for both the students and the universities.”

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