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Chloe Lew: ASUCLA must repair customer loyalty with students, faculty

By Chloe Lew

May 29, 2014 12:00 a.m.

The original version of this article contained an error and has been changed. See the bottom of the article for more information.

The relationship between the Associated Students UCLA textbook store and the majority of its student customers has hit a rough patch.

The prices ask for more than we are ready to give. We think we should see other people.

(Eitan Arom/Daily Bruin senior staff)

And our parting words to the ASUCLA textbook store: It’s not us. It’s you.

As online avenues for selling textbooks, such as Amazon, and social media groups like the “Free and For Sale” Facebook group, where UCLA students can connect with their peers and exchange course materials, offer increasingly cheaper prices for students, the ASUCLA textbook store has suffered ongoing and significant losses in revenue. This shortfall is an issue that begs immediate attention from the ASUCLA Academic Support Division, both in terms of achieving financial stability as well as fulfilling its responsibility to provide student support.

As of March, ASUCLA’s services and enterprises division, which includes the UCLA Store, our student union and campus food services, is running a deficit of $592,000.

Textbook sales, which make up a generous portion of UCLA Store earnings, have taken a particularly heavy hit.

And while about $10 million is currently tucked away in reserves, ASUCLA does not know how much in reserves there will be after five years, said Rich Delia, ASUCLA’s chief financial officer.

To be sure, ASUCLA has been hard at work offsetting income loss by reducing staff and capitalizing on comparably lucrative areas, such as restaurants and licensing the UCLA brand.

But ASUCLA’s mission to stay financially afloat cannot distract from its central mission to serve the student body. For as much effort it puts into cost efficiency throughout the entire ASUCLA organization, there must be matched efforts to internally reform student support services – namely, the textbook store.

After all, textbook sales still contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to ASUCLA’s total revenue. Not to mention, offering students access to textbooks allows ASUCLA to maintain its integral role as an organization providing academic support.

What ASUCLA needs to realize is that students follow the professors. The textbook store must foster customer loyalty not only with students, but with faculty as well, many of whom direct students to free texts hosted online or outsource their course readers to Westwood stores such as Westwood Copies or Course Reader Materials.

We already offer price-matching for outside vendors’ textbook prices. It only makes sense to offer price-matching for course readers as well. Class-customized course readers do relatively well compared to textbooks, said Neil Yamaguchi, ASUCLA’s academic support director. Given this, course readers can be a feasible starting point for ASUCLA to repair customer loyalty.

ASUCLA must compromise better with professors to meet their course reader needs, if only to keep our custom course materials and their profits in-house. When professors go to Westwood copy services for their course readers, they pay into outside companies, as opposed to investing back into the organization meant to serve the entire UCLA community.

And beyond collaborating with professors, ASUCLA must follow student trends as well.

Printed textbooks have taken the worst hit in the overall textbook revenue decline, Yamaguchi said. As students turn to the Internet for e-books, the textbook store must vamp up its digital offerings, and more importantly, market them at competitive prices. While a $50 online access code is no steal, it is far more appealing to students than the $200 print textbook alternative. Though not to be mistaken as silver bullets, a digital move would be a respectable start.

Academic support and student support are one and the same. While ASUCLA can and should work on profit angles, it cannot come at the expense of working on areas more central to student needs. Regaining support from students who already bear the weight of tuition on their backs is no pet project. Given tight budgets, student customer loyalty is fickle, if it exists at all.

Naturally, students need to invest back in ASUCLA as well, whether by bringing in prices to match or simply offering feedback. As a nonprofit serving the UCLA community, ASUCLA is fundamentally flawed when there is no loyalty between the community and its provider.

Our independent bookstore is a luxury, a keystone in any academic institution. Its currently estranged relationship with students is one worth patching.

Correction: ASUCLA does not know how much in reserves there will be after five years.

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