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125-Year-Old Cornell Store Reinvents Itself as Omnichannel Retailer

By Ian McCue, Content Manager

In the past, college students had primarily one option when buying textbooks, souvenirs and other campus life essentials: their campus store.

A national shift in the academic materials and textbook market over the past decade gave students the option to purchase these items through various ecommerce merchants and chain stores. Course materials also became more complex with online rental services and the emergence of digital books.

These changes disrupted the business model at The Cornell Store, the official campus store for Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Since 2013, the portion of The Cornell Store’s revenue from academic materials – including textbooks, school supplies, art supplies and the like – dropped from 27% to 16% of total sales.

“There’s a lot of different avenues to distribute course materials now. Additionally, there are many different formats to distribute it in, which is a national trend that really no one can stop,” Chris Cave, associate director at Cornell Retail Services, said. “We took a proactive approach to respond to this trend and aggressively reviewed other business and service opportunities.”

The campus store knew this trend would only deepen and embarked on a plan to become a full-service retailer, adjusting its business model and organizational structure. That has been no small feat for a business initially founded by students in 1895 as Cornell Cooperative Society before becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cornell University in the late 1940s. It was later named The Cornell Store, which is now part of a broader unit that manages on-campus retail called Cornell Retail Services. Although part of the university, Cornell Retail Services is completely self-funded and must cover all its own expenses, including all operating, personnel and systems expenses and any store improvements. Cornell Retail Services also has a directive from the university to generate revenue to support student and university programs.

To offset the decline in academic materials sales, Cornell Retail Services focused on building a strong selection of general merchandise, including clothing, accessories and gifts. Operating as a true retailer, the business started regularly sending buyers to industry events; testing new items and product categories; procuring higher-margin merchandise; strengthening vendor relationships; and becoming highly promotional, with more in-store events, sales and targeted discounts.

To best meet shifting customer needs, the store altered its layout to open more space for growing product categories like general merchandise and retail technology. When Cornell Retail Services remodeled its flagship store on central campus, it added a café to draw more foot traffic and convert some visitors into customers. It expanded in-store services for on-campus customers, including shipping services and a SmartDesk for new computer setup, diagnostics and troubleshooting. Cornell Retail Services also expanded its store footprint, opening four new locations in Ithaca (all focused on general merchandise) and another in New York City on the Weill Cornell Medicine campus.

Those efforts paid off – over the last six years, general merchandise sales at Cornell Retail Services grew by 43% and now represents its largest business segment.

“Our goal is to be a full-fledged retail service provider so that students aren’t just coming in for their textbooks at the start of the semester,” said Fred Piccirilli, senior director for Cornell Retail Services. “We want them popping into the store regularly, even if they have no intention of shopping.”

Solutions Unfit for Omnichannel Retail

As Cornell Retail Services evolved, its technology struggled to keep up. The retailer used a dated on-premise system developed specifically for campus stores to manage financials, inventory, textbooks, point of sale and order fulfillment. Its ecommerce site ran on a separate platform that was not fully integrated.

“The prior system handled the traditional textbook component adequately,” Cave said. “But where we were seeing the largest growth – in ecommerce and general merchandise – it didn’t have the tools that we needed to help foster growth and develop strategy.

“We also needed a solution that would help us manage new complexities within the academic materials business like rental textbooks and e-books, multiple digital delivery options and price comparison.”

Building reports in the system required manual programming, so only a few people could create them. Once reports were built, they quickly became obsolete because the data was static. In addition, users had no ability to analyze information within the system. Those limitations led many employees to regularly work outside of the solution to manage financials, buying and marketing.

The data was also not always accurate because the lack of data visualization made it challenging to identify and fix errors across existing platforms. Cornell Retail Services knew it needed to implement a new business management solution to become a data-driven business.

Providing Much-Needed Visibility

After researching leading ERP systems for national retailers and campus stores, Cornell Retail Services created a 750-question request for proposal (RFP) that placed greater weight on core business needs and submitted it to 10 vendors. It scored each response and eventually chose NetSuite because it earned the highest score and followed with an in-depth presentation in Ithaca.

Cornell Retail Services implemented NetSuite’s campus store bundle in July 2018, bringing together every aspect of the business on a single platform, including in-store sales, ecommerce, fulfillment and back-office operations. That gives the company tremendous visibility into its business, in real time.

“We can easily drill down to the exact items we’re selling in a day, which allows us to have a real-time response to trends that are happening,” Cave said. “If a product is set up in a certain way and it’s not performing, we can see that hour by hour, day by day and make adjustments in real time.”

A staffer can now see when an item sells out at the main store, check for inventory at the warehouse and do an immediate transfer to minimize the time that item is out of stock. When the warehouse receives backordered textbooks, the system pulls up any existing in-store pickup orders including that book and routes them straight to an order picker at the store. Previously, those books were just put on the sales floor and an employee picked them from there.

Warehouse employees also receive instant notifications for orders with expedited shipping so they can prioritize them.

As the same time, Cornell Retail Services moved its ecommerce site to SuiteCommerce Advanced (SCA) to create a better online shopping experience that could bolster its fast-growing online business. The new site is comparable to those of leading retailers, enhancing services to students, faculty and staff. It also allows them to log in with their single sign-on university credentials and offers additional tender types based on eligibility.

“Our ecommerce site has a modern feel and we’re able to customize it more,” said Casey Rotach, ecommerce manager for Cornell Retail Services. “The customer experience has greatly improved and we’ve begun to see an increase in online sales. We are continuing to enhance SCA to take full advantage of its robust functionality.”

The final piece of the store’s omnichannel suite is NetSuite Point of Sale (POS) for in-store transactions. It replaced an antiquated POS system that had a primitive user interface foreign to Cornell Retail Services’ young employees.

“The student workers are just used to modern technology and they would log in to this thing and they’d never even seen screens like that,” Cave said. “Training was intensive. Now, anyone can handle a basic transaction with very little training.”

Touchscreen desktops and tablets that expedite training are a game-changer for Cornell Retail Services because it employs 75-100 temporary workers for its busiest periods.

Becoming the Best Campus Retailer

 Cornell Retail Services’ NetSuite implementation earned it the university president’s ONE Cornell Award for employee excellence, which recognizes a team that solves a problem that positively impacts the university and local community. The award highlighted the dedication of employees, open-mindedness of management and complete reimagination of the business to enhance the level of service provided to the Cornell community.

The retailer is still continuously tweaking its operations to drive higher margins and efficiency, with the ultimate goal of becoming the country’s leading campus retailer. While that’s a subjective title, to Cornell Retail Services it means fulfilling the university’s objectives for the store – including generating revenue – and offering customers exceptional experiences while continuing to grow.

Put simply, Cornell Retail Services wants to be a shining representation of a world-renowned university.

“Cornell’s very unique in the sense that it has a global presence – we’re an Ivy League institution that’s known all over the world and our customers come from all over the world,” Piccirilli said. “People don’t know that Cornell Retail Services is any different than Cornell, and they think of Cornell as a top-tier institution. We want their shopping experience to meet that expectation as well.”

Learn more about NetSuite’s software for campus stores.