Bookstores loading up to woo college spenders Convention: Bookstore operators and owners are the customers for 660 vendors at the Baltimore Convention Center this week.


Life-size skeletons, sweaters knit in Bolivia, baby bottles, umbrellas, Albert Einstein posters, stethoscopes, golf bags, popcorn makers and T-shirts. It's a merchandising mix that works only in one place -- the college bookstore.

But it's a lucrative mix that brings the 4,500 college bookstores in this country and Canada $7.6 billion in annual sales.

At the Baltimore Convention Center this week, 660 vendors are hawking merchandise to college bookstore operators and owners. They are selling all of the items students would want to find -- from books to computers to items parents would probably rather they didn't -- in a college bookstore.

Textbooks are still the bread and butter of the stores. Some 65 percent to 70 percent of annual sales at college bookstores come from academic materials needed for courses.

But vendors at the Convention Center also were selling the nonessentials. Some 100 companies were selling T-shirts, socks and sweat shirts with college logos while another 67 were hawking backpacks and duffel bags.

And 47 booths were peddling baby clothes, bottles and other kids' stuff with college logos on them. The target market: alumni parents and grandparents who want to be sure that the newest generation knows who Alma Mater is.

While college bookstores may have their unique brand of retailing, they have not escaped the trend toward superstore chains. About 30 percent are already operated by large companies such as Barnes & Noble College Book Stores and Follett's College Stores, according to Jerry Bucks, director of public relations for the National Association of College Stores, and another 3 percent to 5 percent a year are being turned over to outside operators. Barnes & Noble, for instance, has taken over the famed co-ops at both Harvard and Yale universities.

Despite the trend, Norman Brown, owner of the Student Bookstore Inc. in State College, Pa., said that at large universities more than one bookstore can survive. His privately owned store, on the edge of Penn State's main campus, is one of three another independent and a Barnes & Noble. All three stock a full supply of course textbooks, but Brown said he has gone after the used-textbook market. With the typical price tag for a semester's worth of reading now at $250, Brown said students are doing everything to avoid buying a book new, including sharing with other students.

For him and others who sell at schools with competitive athletic programs, the high margin merchandise is clothing with logos.

"The key is location," said Brown, who does most of his buying at the show. Being close to dormitories or an athletic center is always a positive, he said.

Despite the thirst of superstores to take over, some 70 percent of the stores are still owned by the university or colleges, with average annual sales of about $2 million.

Some items are staples of the college bookstore market. T-shirts and pens, books and aspirin have always sold well. But figuring out what else will appeal to college students is not so obvious.

Marcy Riesel knows. She's selling posters to hang in college dorm rooms in Maryland, Washington and Virginia for Poster Service Inc. Ask her what is hot and it seems pretty old. She's selling images of Albert Einstein, John Belushi, Bob Marley, the Three Stooges and the eternal yellow smiley face with "Have a nice day" underneath.

The show at the Convention Center has attracted more than 7,000 people for three days of educational programs and business. For some vendors who sell merchandise aimed exclusively at college students, this week is crucial.

Kathy O'Brien of Zionsville, Pa., who with a partner, Ellen Wooley, sells about 10,000 handmade Bolivian sweaters to college stores, comes to the convention every year looking for customers.

"The convention does help us because we get to meet new schools," she said.

For some vendors, convention orders represent only a fraction of their business. Michael Kraus Putumayo World Music in New York was making his first trip to the show in the hope of adding more college bookstores as outlets for the CDs of folk and ethnic music he sells. "I have already opened up 20 more stores," he said.

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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