Nebraska Book Company uses its more than 100 years of experience to evolve in the competitive higher education used textbook market.
By Staci Davidson, Managing Editor at Knighthouse Media
The book industry is not new, and when it comes to Nebraska Book Company (NBC) – a leader in sourcing and distributing used books – it rarely deals with new materials. But with a history that dates back to 1915, NBC knows how to evolve and keep things fresh. This is how NBC maintains its market leadership position and continues to be a high-quality supplier and customer.
“For most companies, customer experience is important,” notes Peter Grenier, senior vice president of operations and strategy. “With us, our customers are also our suppliers – so customer experience has to be top of mind in every transaction.”
Based in Lincoln, Neb., NBC got its start in 1915 as an independent college bookstore, but now is a key resource and consulting partner to more than 2,000 college retailers nationwide. Focusing on strengthening higher education retail across the United States, Canada and the Caribbean, NBC sources and distributes used textbooks, supports digital books, and provides book rental programs.
“We focus on three core pillars,” Grenier says. “First, we have great systems for distribution. Our business is very unique in that we both buy from and sell to the same organizations, and because of that dynamic, our supply chain has an unusual set of challenges that are different than most any other industry. The team does a great job of working through those challenges, as well as, leveraging standard supply chain techniques where we can.”
“Second, we are experts at textbook science.” He explains, when a new textbook edition first comes out, the demand for used books can be ten to twenty times greater than there is available used supply, so the market is very competitive. Additionally, by the time the market has enough used supply to meet the demand, those editions are more than halfway through their useful life. “It’s a game of acquiring the right used textbooks, at the right amount, at the right price.” he says. “We have to hedge our bets the way you would if you were trading stocks or commodities.”
“Third, we are dedicated to customer experience,” he adds. “We spend a lot of time and effort in ensuring a great customer experience and providing services other than just the textbook. We focus on how to help our customers manage the retail business, as well as how to manage the market of textbooks.”
NBC offers customers retail support in part through its sister companies:
* PrismRBS is the industry leader of technology and software for campus retail services, offering point-of-sale solutions, backend inventory software, mobile solutions and ecommerce software and services.
* College Store Design offers architectural and design consulting services, and is known for innovative and modern solutions for campus bookstores and auxiliary services.
* Campus Advisory Services is a consulting firm led by experienced professionals who provide solutions and services that help campuses create strategic plans for their future.
NBC’s own service offering is extensive and advanced. With its MyNBC platform, the company offers a modern book-ordering system for the higher education market. “Customers can come in and interact with their accounts – see all their orders and their history,” he says. “What we plan to do with it over the next couple of years will be quite revolutionary in our industry. We used to have a site that was 10 to 15 years old – it was antiquated and hard to use. Jennifer Goetsch, client experience senior manager, made it her mission to make this a priority last year and she was right. The feedback on MyNBC has been tremendous. Customers have full access to order and manage their open orders online – it makes life so much easier.”
He notes the NBC team is available to customers and work through anything they need, because that’s key in the company’s value system. “Our mission is to bring value and peace of mind to the campus community through our people, products and services, and that extends throughout our company,” Grenier says. “We like to talk to customers, and listen to their concerns and issues that they deal with every day. It makes us a stronger partner and develop better solutions for our customers.”
NBC delivers peace of mind by remaining an integral part of the schools’ supply. “We comb through our inventory multiple times to remove counterfeits,” Grenier says. “We are dedicated to on-time delivery. When they ask for it, we have it. When they have a problem, we answer the phone. We manage everything down to the box of books – they are packed by title to make our customers’ jobs easier. We do all we can to make sure the customer feels they are getting what they deserve.”
Grenier explains counterfeiting is a “significant problem” in the used textbooks market, and NBC added new processes in October 2017 to eliminate those within its own operation. This work involved updating its in-bound system to create an enhanced quality check. By creating smaller locations in its put-away process and picking like titles together, NBC can more easily spot counterfeits. Today many of our processes are running on smartphones allowing our team members to be much more mobile.
“All you have to do is scan the book with a bluetooth scanner connected to the phone and you know where to put it or where to pick it,” Grenier says. “We needed to make the warehouse ‘temp-proof’. We hire a lot of seasonal workers during our busy seasons and rely on technology so anyone can come into the warehouse and in 15 minutes understand our processes. Velociti continues to give us great solutions and they’ve been a phenomenal partner.”
He believes the new warehouse system will continue to improve NBC’s operations. “We are a 103-year-old company and we have been managing books almost the same way for a long, long time,” he says. “Sam Miller, director of distribution and logistics, laid out a vision and a plan to be a more efficient, data-driven distribution center. Soon, we will be able to incentivize the team on real performance metrics. Over time, we expect to improve our labor planning and will use this data to develop a performance-based pay system that I think our team will really like. Although, pretty standard stuff in most industries, in our industry, this is a pretty big deal.”
NBC is finding more ways to remain competitive, which is important as the textbook market gets more competitive. Grenier notes that digital books can eliminate the used book market, but students, so far, have not taken to the digital textbook products in very meaningful way, although NBC expects they will eventually. Also, publishers have added features like access codes and other online materials focused on improving educational outcomes, but these tools are not available in used books. Additionally, open-education resources, which is generally a low-cost content, are becoming more and more prevalent in the education content space.
Even so, a used rental book is usually the cheapest way for a student to acquire a book, which is important to students as education costs rise. NBC is bolstering its business by looking into online sources and other forms of content that can supplement its used sales.
“We are transitioning in the industry well in the face of digital,” Grenier says. “I am proud of our ability to evolve while maintaining our focus on customer needs. We continue to look for ways to add value and peace of mind for them. There is a lot of disruption in our industry, but we don’t let it affect our passion for customer success or how we do business. We have a very good team that is focused on the right things.
“You can get yourself in all the noise and forget who you are and why you do it,” he adds. “We have to compete and go to war every day without giving up who we are and who we do it for.”