What Academic Librarians Can Learn from Retail’s Meltdown | From the Bell Tower

For many years the newspaper industry served as the cautionary tale for libraries. But as even the biggest brick-and-mortar stores fall, retail may be an even better example for libraries looking for new ways to provide a better experience for community members.
Steven BellFor many years the newspaper industry served as the cautionary tale for libraries. But as even the biggest brick-and-mortar stores fall, retail may be an even better example for libraries looking for new ways to provide a better experience for community members. Businesses of all types have redesigned their service delivery models over the years to respond to changing customer expectations. They want to deliver a new experience that better fits with the on-the-move, convenience-driven lifestyles of consumers. Academic librarians are no strangers to adopting and adapting some of these new models to their own operations. Chat with a live operator for assistance? Check. Use an automated self-service machine for faster service? Check. Stop in the café to grab a coffee or snack on the way to the stacks? Check. Responsive website? Check. Personal librarian? Check. All good ideas, but even retailers, particularly the ones still maintaining a brick-and-mortar presence, are fighting for survival. Losses to online retailers—mostly Amazon—are taking their toll. Although they too support expansive online content and service operations, academic libraries still mostly focus on a physical campus presence. But it’s no longer a given that students and faculty will come, even if we improve the quality of the experience. What can we learn from the retail world, both the failures and successes, which might lead us to implement some new strategies?

Signs of change

The decline of the traditional retailer has been underway since companies like Amazon first began selling books online.  As the juggernaut began to gain momentum, traditional booksellers—unfortunately many of them our local non-chain bookstores—struggled to stay open, but eventually failed. Brick-and-mortar retailers like Blockbuster fell to online-only competitors like Netflix. Abandoned shopping centers and strip malls are being replaced by residential projects. Mall owners are building apartment housing next door in hopes of bringing the buyers closer to the stores. Just since October 2016, some 90,000 people have lost retail jobs, a staggering number that exceeds the total number of American coal industry jobs. According to Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends Report for 2017, nearly 7,000 retail stores will close this year, breaking a record that has stood for 20 years. You can get the same picture by walking through your local downtown. Bryn Mawr, a small town near where I live, recently saw the closure of two long-time retailers, a toy store and a hardware store. Each had been in business more than 40 years. While local residents no doubt were willing to shop local to support them, the ease, convenience, and immediacy of online retailers made it impossible for the retirement-bound owners to find anyone to buy their businesses. Despite the pleasure of personalized, friendly service, these stores are gone for good. What if something could have saved them?

What’s working—and what’s not

That’s the question even the biggest retailers are trying to answer. It’s led to a variety of experiments to bring shoppers in and get them to spend before they leave. Too often these days “showroomers” only visit brick-and-mortar stores to examine products before buying them online. Some retailers, like Nike or IKEA, would be fine with that, since they have the unique products to move consumers from store to online without losing the sale. That strategy works less well if you sell hammers or E-Z Bake Ovens. Still, some retailers are betting on an even more engaging and immersive store experience. While Sears and K-Mart are falling by the wayside, Target has hired more than 1,000 software engineers in the last two years as it revamps to a “digital first” strategy that connects to the in-store experience. Sporting goods retailers are building bigger stores with spaces where customers try products under real-life conditions. Others are betting on hi-tech solutions to offer new forms of in-store instant gratification—think made-to-order shoes or handbags. There is also a secondary strategy to educate consumers about the way in which the products are made, to connect them to the brand and have them become spokespersons for it. Others are experimenting with mash-ups of their physical and virtual stores, allowing customers to order, pick up, get help, or nearly anything from any preferred space. Experimentation is good, but all bets may be off if Amazon decides to spread its “Go” store concept, which raises the bar for convenient, frictionless shopping.

Strategies for academic libraries

In a world of heightened expectations for convenience and a superior mobile experience, how do academic libraries—where thousands of new software engineers won’t be hired anytime soon–get students and faculty more emotionally connected to the library experience? Academic libraries are not retail organizations and shouldn’t be run like them, though this dean draws some interesting comparisons between higher education and the retail industry. But there may be some things we can take away from that industry that may benefit a redesign of the library experience to better align with student expectations. Here are some possibilities: Be a niche service: Instead of competing with Google, focus on what is unique about your library and what it can do better. Local retailers that are surviving and thriving do so when they find a niche in the community that offers an experience people find unique. The demise of independent retail stores that simply offer merchandise demonstrates that just the stuff is insufficient for competition with online retailers. Go beyond cafés: Retailers are big on dining experiences–and it’s one space where Amazon has yet to play much. Food service spending is growing at twice the rate of retail spending and movie theaters, bowling alleys, and more traditional retailers are integrating food experiences. Malls are moving far beyond tired old food courts. These days they are more likely to want a Cheesecake Factory as an anchor rather than a Sears or Macy’s. Cafés in the library have demonstrated that food has drawing power. To capitalize on that idea, it may be worth considering colocating a full-service dining hall within a library. Split F2F and online: When retailers attempt to blend their brick-and-mortar with online operations, it can fail to deliver the anticipated results. Instead of making each better, they ultimately dilute the overall experience. Academic libraries may want to follow in the steps of retailers that run their physical and virtual stores as completely different operations. The two may have unique leaders and staff, but, just as retailers share inventory, both would work with a single set of resources. That’s why more higher education institutions, like Purdue, will seek to establish entirely independent online providers. What would an “online” first operation look like for an academic library? Personalization: Just as consumers appreciate being able to custom order shoes or jeans that are unique to them, academic librarians can leverage the desire for personal attention through the development of better personalization and promoting uniquely designed and delivered one-on-one consultations to students. Personal librarians are a nice touch, but difficult to scale so that there’s much more to the concept than a welcome message. Truly personalized services would likely require some mix of artificially intelligent agents, big data, and predictive analytics—and librarian savvy—to customize the experience for each student. Promote Quiet Space: Call it a contemplation space, meditation or mindfulness space, or a relaxation zone, but it’s increasingly difficult for students and staff who work in open offices to find a space for serious quiet. If distraction-free silence is an increasingly rare commodity, than academic libraries have something to offer.

Time to experiment

Add it all up and there’s no one solution that saves the day. Perhaps the big takeaway for academic librarians from the retail meltdown of 2017 is that just staying the course may be a path to decline. Another suggestion is to pay attention to how the consumer marketplace is affecting the behavior and expectations of our community members. When asked what retail will be like in 2027, retail digital strategist Sapna Shah Parikh described it as “sitting on my sofa, and my refrigerator will be automatically replenished with products I need without me having to do anything.” And we think students expect too much convenience now! Perhaps what matters most in this landscape is being experimental, having a mindset that is open to trying new things and being willing to borrow ideas from fields far from our own. Wandering around a big research library may have no more appeal to a traditional college-age student than wandering around a mall does when merchandise can be ordered online. While most academic libraries are hardly the most social and interactive of spaces, what we can do is bring together a variety of academic success services under one roof. For now, that seems to work—but let’s remember the fate of those shopping malls.      

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