I have been thinking of writing about the Stanford Bookstore for a while. Intellectually, it is a fascinating place. Its three sprawling floors display an enormous amount of merchandise, from clothing to lip balm to computers. They must be selling quite a lot to pay the expenses of maintaining their inventory and their space. The comfy chairs and the mezzanine-level café suggest that the bookstore is not just a store but also a place to be. But as media consumption becomes increasingly electronic, what will the bookstore do to flourish?
Now to the story that inspired this column. I went to the bookstore last week to return a book for a biology class. I hadn’t dropped the class, and I hadn’t found a cheaper copy of the book online. I had simply made a mistake and bought a recommended book, thinking that it was required. While I admire those who diligently study the recommended texts, I decided that I was unlikely to do so in this case. I also wanted to save 30 bucks.
The employee at the customer service desk would not take the return because I had not dropped the class. At the beginning of each quarter, there is a certain period of time when books may be returned for any reason, and after that students must present proof that they have dropped the relevant class. I missed this deadline by two days.
In a way, this policy is very understandable. I assume it exists because the textbook division of the bookstore could not be financially solvent if no one bought books there. If they allowed returns too late into the quarter, they would risk getting too many returns from people who use bookstore books for the first couple weeks before receiving cheaper copies from online. Not only would the bookstore be losing the money from the initial sales, it would essentially be lending out its books for free. Anecdotally, it seems like a lot of people are succeeding at doing this even with the current return policy.
Luckily, the book I wanted to return was for a large lecture class with unlimited enrollment. So I told the bookstore representative that if I wanted to, I could easily drop the class, return the book and then re-enroll right afterward. How about we skip this game, I suggested, and you just let me return the book?
My request was denied. I don’t hold anything against the employee because he made it clear that the decision to go against company policy was not his to make. I walked outside, took out my laptop and dropped the class. I got back in line and showed the Axess schedule on my screen to the same person. Before he even finished processing the refund, I had already added the class back to my schedule.
Since there was a clear route to getting my money back, the bookstore’s failure to cooperate with me was not a big deal. I’m not angry at the bookstore; I don’t feel that I deserve any sort of apology, and I will probably continue to buy books there in the future.
All the same, this episode wasted everyone’s time and certainly did nothing to improve my relationship with the bookstore. I understand the need to protect existing revenue streams until new ones are found, but whatever the bookstore’s path into the future, unnecessarily inconveniencing customers is not the way to be successful in the long term.
Questions, comments, suggestions, anonymous tip-offs? Contact Jeff at jeff2013 “at” stanford “dot” edu.