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Friday, March 11, 2011

CAMEX questions answered: rental

This week's CAMEX questions relate to textbook rental. Here are two questions representative of the ones submitted on this topic:

Q1. Has rental deterred stores from progressing as they should in digital?
Q2. Is rental a short-lived/temporary solution?

Both good questions. The first question is the more complicated to address, and in doing so, much of the second question will also be touched upon. I will apologize in advance for some of the "doom and gloom" that follows. If a different question had been posed, I probably could have inserted more optimism for how we could leverage rental to be more successful at digital, and in business in general, as collegiate retailers.

A1. Related to the first question -- yes, I have heard that some stores believe that "rental will save them." Personally, in my opinion this is a flawed assumption. Certainly there are benefits to rental programs. They can reduce course material costs for students. They can be a source of positive PR on campus. Certainly there are a growing number of programs and offerings that make it easier for stores to offer rental programs with less risk (although depending on the approach taken by a store, less risk is not guaranteed). Rental can be a means to both recapture market share and increase store foot traffic. With these benefits, it is not surprising to see that the number of college stores in North America offering rental programs has soared from roughly 300 to over 2400 in less than two years, and we expect the number to be even higher by this fall. From a market share perspective, rental has negatively affected digital sales within stores, leading some stores to conclude that digital is even further off from the mainstream.

The last two sets of stats provide an interesting challenge, though. Rental programs have been around for more than 40 years at some schools, yet very few schools participated in these programs prior to two years ago. When the right set of enabling factors arise a technology, in this case rental, can take off remarkably fast. What happens when the right set of enabling factors come on stage for digital? Will stores be able to make that transition as quickly?

Relatively speaking, rental is fairly easy to implement given some of the program options out there today for stores. Programs like those offered by Chegg, BookRenter, Follett, and others help leverage and dissipate risk across the industry. While there are contracts involved, the transaction is still fairly easy to understand and students know how to use the product once received.

In contrast, consider digital products. These are far more complex and often require more education at the point of transaction for the consumer to be able to utilize the product. Could the industry make the shift to provide digital products effectively as quickly? Adoption by stores seems to have stalled somewhere in the early majority, but with the right set of enabling factors, it could move toward larger adoption quickly. Stores and the channel would be unwise to deter experiments or establishing the necessary infrastructure just because rental is currently providing a short reprieve.

The effect of rental on used is just the ebbing of the tide that warns us about the tsunami that digital could create. A bit extreme, but both possible and plausible if digital were to take off as quickly as rental has in the past two years.

A2. Related to the second question, let me answer it by proposing a different question to consider: is rental a bridge technology?

Let me explain what I mean by a bridge technology. While we refer to digital as a "subscription," the actual business model is not much different from the rental model. Rental models change the mindset of the student to accept business models where they pay a price and get their savings up front, and then get nothing when they return the product at the end of its lifecycle. With one catch: we have seen stats that up to 20% of students fail to return their rental book, resulting in charges for the replacement book at the new book price. If I were a publisher, I might consider a sales pitch along the following lines: digital textbook rentals -- more convenient than physical book rentals, because at the end of the rental period the book returns itself. As physical book rentals get a new business model embedded in the mind of students -- a business model that looks a lot like many of the current digital textbook business models -- then yet another enabling factor for digital will be in place.

So if rental is a bridge technology, like print-on-demand (POD) in my opinion, then it probably has a 5-10 year lifespan where it will have effective returns in this market. It may extend market share and the role of the store, but at the same time it further enables the transition to digital. Stores might be able to concentrate more on rental for the next year, maybe two. At the same time they have to be looking ahead to how they will participate in the digital environment that is coming. That means improved e-commerce and m-commerce capability, and the ability to be format and device agnostic providers of content. That is something few if any traditional college stores are ready for today, but that the industry must be ready for in the near future. Rental, like POD, might buy the industry a small amount of breathing room, but they are relatively short-term rather than long-term solutions to the radical innovation challenges ahead.

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