Follett Features

Follett and Rice University: A Look Back at the First Year of Partnership


WESTCHESTER, IL, Jun 20, 2017

When an institution makes the decision to partner with a new vendor – regardless of the area of operation – one of the biggest initial concerns is the transition period. 

Will there be a gap in service during this time?  How will the campus be impacted during the transition?  When can the institution expect operations to return to full capacity? 

For institutions that choose to partner with Follett for campus store operations, these questions are answered the same way – every time – with confidence.  With thousands of new store operations throughout its history, Follett has fine-tuned the art of the seamless, hassle-free transition.   From day one on campus, Follett remains steadfast and focused on its mission to deliver on promises and provide a world-class experience to partners and customers.  This means little to no impact on the campus during the transition, and operations up and running in time to provide optimal service to the campus community.

The store transition, however, is just the beginning of the journey.  For Follett’s new partnership at Rice University in Houston, Texas, the first year of operation was full of efforts to rebuild the identity of the campus store and ensure it became an integral part of the campus community once again.

The partnership, which officially began in June 2016, kicked off with the transition of the main campus store location. Prior to the transition, one of the first tasks was to get a solid leadership team in place at the campus store to help oversee the process.  Follett Regional Manager Gregory Bason said that he and the administration were looking for strong, competent leaders who would be dedicated to driving the mission of the campus.  It was an easy decision, he said, to hire Matt Erskin as the store manager.

“Rice received a top-notch Litzsinger manager,” Gregory said, referring to Follett’s P.R. Litzsinger Store Manager of the Year award, which Matt won in 2016 as manager of the campus store at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks.

Since joining the campus store team at Rice, Matt has been thankful for the support from his fellow Follett team members – something he said has been integral to the success of the store transition and partnership. 

“It’s been a community-supported effort,” said Matt.  “It comes down to trusting the people around you and communicating your needs.  If you’re not communicating, you’re not going to achieve your goals.”

Taking that notion to heart, Gregory, Matt and team set out to make progress on the host of responsibilities the campus had for Follett:  improve product selection, develop stronger campus relationships, identify new ways to serve unique campus groups, find a competitive edge with online retailers, expand the institutional brand, and more.  Follett met these challenges head-on through communication, strong leadership, swift decision-making and quick action.

“I started planning visits to all departments, finding out their struggles with the bookstore,” said Gregory. “Textbooks weren’t necessarily the issue.  The previous campus store wasn’t a part of the community and the operators didn’t effectively partner with campus departments.”

According to Matt, this type of campus outreach and service is one of the reasons Rice University chose to partner with Follett in the first place.  “The campus told me the reason we won the contract is our dedication to customer service and how we view service.  We look at it as a family-run business – if our customers won’t come to us, we need to be willing to go to them.”

That’s exactly what Matt suggested when the school asked him how the campus store could win back student business from online competition, like Amazon.  Recognizing the student preference of free shipping directly to dorms, Matt worked with the eFollett team to set up Rice’s residential colleges as a pickup option for online orders.

“If you’re not being convenient to the students, you’re not going to win the business,” added Matt.

To tackle the challenge of serving unique campus groups, like Rice University’s distinct and competitive residential colleges, the Follett team was proud to introduce Advanced-Online – Follett’s new solution for athletic and institutional gear.  The athletic site was up and running even before the official opening of the campus store and has seen a lot of success in its first year.  Soon, the university will be rolling out a custom online institutional store, where Rice University staff and administration can purchase college-, department- and academic school-branded merchandise and promotional items.

As for the physical space, the campus store team was also challenged in the first year to do more with less.  What was originally a two-level store soon became one level, as the university requested to use half of the space for another purpose.  While the Follett team was concerned about losing space for course materials, they got creative and made it work. 

“The residential delivery program had already cut back on store traffic.  So, we knocked down walls and converted office space and back-room space into additional sales space.  We want to be out on the sales floor anyway,” said Gregory.

Another priority during the past year has been the integration of Follett Discover, a suite of technology solutions that transforms the course materials process for faculty and students.  According to Matt, Follett Discover was one of the offerings that drew Rice University to Follett.   Right now, Rice students can enjoy Follett Discover View, which provides students the ability to view the costs of required course materials prior to registration and allows students to purchase their materials anytime. 

These efforts are only the tip of the iceberg of the work that Follett has done at Rice University during the first year of partnership.  Among other priorities, the team has also been focused on strengthening Rice’s athletic brand through a new tailgating pop-up shop, a new stadium football store and expanded advertising efforts through a partnership with IMG. 

As they embark on their second year of partnership with Rice University, Matt and team show no signs of slowing down. They plan to continue their mission to deliver on their promises to their partners – and it appears they’re on the right track.  In the spring of 2017, less than one year into the partnership, Rice University administration sent a note to Follett to express its appreciation and recognize the quality of service the team has provided.  An excerpt follows:

Your team quickly transitioned the campus store with minimal interruption to regular business along with making additional adjustments that were asked of them.  The management team identified important stakeholders on campus and without hesitation fostered those relationships.  As a result, we have received positive feedback about the support your managers, Matt Erskin and David Tucker, have provided and are confident in their leadership.  Such efforts to make the store a success have coincided well with our commitment to excellence for our students and the university community.  --Kevin E. Kirby, VP for Administration, and Beth Leaver, Sr. Project Manager, Housing & Dining

What does the future look like for the new and improved campus store at Rice?  According to Matt, the team plans to focus on staying proactive in building relationships, improving operations and providing great customer service.

“We’re never going to be perfect,” Matt added. “But we’re going to strive for that perfection.”