What Independent Retailers Can Learn from College Bookstores

Jon Bibo, CEO of the Independent College Bookstore Association, shares how this unique category continues to be successful with a broad, local audience.

JGA: What’s the typical audience like in the world of college bookstores? Most of us reading this are long past college years, so give us an idea of the target audience and what you know about them?

Bibo: Today’s college stores have really evolved to become multi-department, omni-channel retailers serving a diverse array of consumers that includes faculty, staff, students, alumni, the local community, parents, and sports fans. As a result, the product assortments college stores carry are much broader than ever before and, in addition to textbooks, include: licensed apparel and gifts, school/office supplies, technology/electronics, non-licensed gift merchandise, health/beauty, convenience food/beverages, graduation merchandise, and much more—all available in-store and online.

JGA: How are college bookstores different today than they were 15-10-5 years ago?

Bibo: The ratio of sales coming from textbooks (versus other products) has declined over the last 10-15 years. This is a result of the price of textbooks declining (a good thing!) and the sales expansion of other general retail merchandise product categories.

JGA: What has changed in the world of college bookstores in the past 2 years?

Bibo: The pandemic had, and continues to have, a major impact on college store operations and sales. With students taking most classes remotely in 2020 and even part of 2021, college stores really “upped” their game in terms of ecommerce—adding more products to their websites and improving internal fulfillment processes. For textbooks, it signaled a major acceleration of the existing trend toward digital textbooks. From a marketing and communications standpoint, college stores had to balance sending informational messages supporting their institutions’ mandates and protocols with sending selling messages that were important to their success as retailers.

JGA: What learnings could college bookstores give other retailers targeting the same audience of college students?

Bibo: As with many other retail segments, college students want authenticity and want to shop from retailers who support social responsibility as well offering good products at good prices. Offering the lowest prices isn’t as much of a requirement as one might think. Carrying “trend-right” brands and telling a story as a retailer is important as well. College students also value support of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives across the entire campus and from the college store. Some are working with to create textbook scholar awards, selecting products that are more ethnically-oriented, collecting food for local food banks, and some are offering special clothes featuring an iconic feature of their school. When they embed themselves in the community, they become a more attractive resource and naturally drive foot traffic.


Jon Bibo is the CEO of Independent College Bookstore Association where he helps nearly 200 member owners of institutional collegiate retail stores across the US and Canada partner with vendors, service providers and other industry organizations to support and enhance their business. He also provides education, expertise and insight through engaging programming and events so that they can continue to operate successfully.