Clothes, gifts drive bookstores’ strong sales

Dan Haugen

University Bookstores finished a year of stronger-than-expected sales with the best holiday sales figures in the store’s history.

December sales were up 44 percent compared with 2002, driven primarily by strong sales of gifts and apparel items at the Coffman Union store, which opened one year ago.

The numbers come as good news for the unit, which has experienced falling revenues and rising deficits since it discontinued computer sales in the mid-1990s.

University Bookstores director Bob Crabb credits the turnaround to the new Coffman Union store. Even after students deserted campus for winter break, the bookstore was still bustling, bringing in $140,000 in the three days before Christmas.

“It tells us pretty clearly that people consider us right up there with the premier retailers in town,” Crabb said. “People were shopping for Christmas, and instead of going to the Mall of America, they came here.”

The 46,000-square-foot location more than tripled the amount of floor space dedicated to gifts and apparel. That has allowed the store to buy more aggressively than it has in the past, stocking more items in greater bulk.

“We were able to expand in areas we couldn’t capitalize on in the past,” said Dean Wendland, University Bookstores clothing and gift manager.

Sales of women’s fashions, for example, exploded at college stores nationally in the last few years, but until the Coffman store opened, University Bookstores was limited in how much it could sell.

Since the start of the University fiscal year July 1, gift and clothing sales are up 52 percent and 45 percent, respectively, compared to the same period last year.

Gifts and apparel items are about one-tenth of University Bookstores’ annual revenue. However, it is an important sliver because profit margins for those products are higher than for textbooks, Crabb said.

College bookstores originated as a place to buy and sell textbooks, but schools soon realized the stores would need to diversify into other areas such as clothing and school supplies if they were to be self-sufficient, he said.

As schools recognized the potential revenue gifts and clothing offer, the trend has been toward larger stores with more diverse products and styles.

According to the National Association of College Stores, insignia items – which include gifts and apparel – accounted for $872 million in sales during the 2002-03 school year, a 1.6 percent increase from the previous year.

“It used to be one T-shirt fits all, but that’s not the case anymore,” association spokeswoman Laura Nakoneczny said. Women have asked for different styles and college stores have answered, she said. One example: Regardless of school colors, pink T-shirts have been hot sellers.

Still, positive gift and apparel sales do not necessarily save the bookstore from its financial stresses.

Cash flow projections made before the Coffman store opened showed yearly deficits continuing even after the store opened. While sales have been higher than expected, so have expenses, meaning overall profit margins are in line with what was forecasted, Crabb said.