A few short years ago, California State University, Fullerton’s Titan Shops—which operates stores that provide 40,000 students with books and sundries—faced a crisis of sorts.
Cal State Fullerton’s retail operation had adapted to book buying trends by becoming one of the country’s first colleges to offer a textbook rental program back in 2005, but the world continued changing, and Amazon grew into the defining retail experience it is today.
“Our consumer was expecting an easy-to-use website, and flexibility with how they do things,” said Kim Ball, director of Titan Shops and a 25-year veteran of the campus bookstore world. “Our legacy systems couldn’t provide that flexibility.”
“Our consumer was expecting an easy-to-use website, and flexibility with how they do things. Our legacy systems couldn’t provide that.”
--Kim Ball, director of Titan Shops
Adding to the challenge was the fact that the move to rental books had already brought a big hit to revenue. Ball pointed out that a textbook that would have sold for $100 rents for just $40, and now digital copies sell for less than that. Titan Stores’ book revenues dropped by nearly 50% during this transition.
Ball knew Titan Shops would have to make some changes if it was to continue fulfilling its mission of providing goods and services to the campus community. That meant shopping for a technology platform that would enable it to distribute books digitally.
The Journey From Legacy to Online-Only
Upon encountering these difficulties, Titan Shops ran on a 20-year-old legacy system for college bookstores called MBS. When Ball’s team first tried to add point-of-sale and ecommerce capabilities into the system, poor integration hindered performance. Teams had to juggle multiple logins: one for the general merchandise system, another for the textbook system, and others for the POS and ecommerce systems.
After a few fits and starts in the search for a new platform, Ball heard about the University of Oregon’s store using NetSuite, and she started asking her peers there about their experiences. (Ball points out that since campus stores don’t compete with each other, the industry shares knowledge readily.)
Wanting to learn more, Ball and her team traveled to Tucson, Arizona to see a NetSuite demo at the University of Arizona. It was clear NetSuite had the potential to solve Titan Shops’ issues and support growth.
Eventually, Titan Shops selected NetSuite Campus Store Edition, which includes point-of-sale functionality, NetSuite SuiteCommerce for online retail, and campus-specific customizations, all designed to deal with sale and rental of textbooks and course materials.
The system went live in June 2018, and over the next year and a half, Titan Shops worked on refining its ecommerce storefront, adding products to the site, and developing its digital book sales capabilities.
Little did Ball and her team know just how important their actions were. At the time, about 20% of Titan Shops’ sales were online, so most of the business was still in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting. But then COVID-19 hit, the stores closed, and the staff faced a scramble to get all of its products on the site.
“That’s been our push the past couple of months,” said Ball. That, plus dissecting the ordering and fulfillment processes to minimize the touches per order.
Tested to the Hilt
Then the hits started coming. First, there was the cancellation of the school’s Grad Fest in March, an event that normally generates about $800,000 in sales of graduation stuff in just three days for Titan Shops. The stores couldn’t afford to lose all those sales, so that meant figuring out how to generate as much business through the ecommerce site as possible, which is a completely different proposition than handing stuff out from boxes.
“We had to roll up our sleeves,” said Ball. “We weren’t ready for 1,000 orders a week.”
Yet, even with full-time staff working just two or three days a week, mostly from home, and Ball spending a big chunk of her days printing and pulling orders, Titan Shops pulled it off. It managed to sell about 60% of its usual volume of caps and gowns, despite no spring event and no graduation ceremony, thanks in large part to its new SuiteCommerce-powered setup.
Next came the announcement that the Cal State University system would operate 100% online for the fall semester. Cal State Fullerton will limit its in-person classes to less than 250 sections, with all other courses being taught virtually. And Ball said there are indications that the model will last through the spring.
In April, Titan Shops faced another big challenge: cancellation of the annual Welcome Day, when as many as 10,000 newly accepted students and family members visit campus. The cancellation left Titan Shops with 2,000 extra sweatshirts ordered specifically for that day, all of which it would have to sell online.
Campus Outreach, the team responsible for the event, offered to cover the cost of shipping for anyone who ordered those sweatshirts. Ball’s team created a NetSuite code customers could use to get credit for shipping, then tracked code usage in NetSuite and billed the Campus for the expense. In the end, Titan Shops sold through its 2,000 sweatshirts and had just over 1,000 sales orders placed in a three-day period—a definitive win.
Thinking Outside the Box
This series of challenges, combined with the prospect of being an online-only business for another year, has Ball thinking outside the box.
For instance, since deploying NetSuite, Titan Shops’ staff has typically shifted back and forth between adding products to the site and processing orders. But Ball now has that team spending all of its time putting product on the site, and instead has retrained cashiers to learn how to pick and pack orders.
Titan Shops also integrated with the main campus portal so that when students log in there, they can navigate directly to a Titan Shops page with a prepopulated list of the books and materials they need for their classes.
Ready for the Future
Naturally, Ball would love classes to return to campus and for her stores (the main one on campus, a satellite store 25 miles away in Irvine, and two campus convenience stores) to be bustling with students. But in the absence of that reality, she believes NetSuite and SuiteCommerce have Titan Shops positioned to not only thrive through the pandemic but also emerge stronger.
“The challenges of COVID-19 have actually allowed our staff to leverage NetSuite even more, putting us in a better position to serve the campus when everyone returns,” Ball said. “This whole thing has made sure we’re looking at ecommerce in a different way and leveraging that platform.”
“The challenges of COVID-19 have actually allowed our staff to leverage NetSuite even more, putting us in a better position to serve the campus when everyone returns.”
And when that return to some semblance of normal occurs, certain lessons are likely to carry over.
“When everything goes live again, I probably will keep the web people just doing web stuff,” Ball said. “There are some things we’ve learned from this shift that we will continue doing going forward.”