It didn’t take much for Beth Christian to get hooked on a career in collegiate retail. As a long-standing merchant and the former college store manager at Bloomsburg University she brings a unique, store-centric approach to her role as Director of Business Development (Stores) at Sidewalk. We spent five minutes with Beth to discuss her multifaceted career, the nuances of collegiate retail, and how industry needs and challenges have changed in the last few years.
What did you do prior to working at Sidewalk?
I have always been a merchant. I grew up helping in our family’s commercial kitchen equipment and design business. At the age of 22, I opened my own clothing store and after 11 years serving our local downtown in this capacity, I joined Bloomsburg University Store as the General Merchandise Manager in 1997.
Why did you choose Higher Ed?
I think many store managers out there can relate when I say I had no idea I was choosing a career in Higher Education when I began at the University Store. They were looking for someone who knew how to turn a profit, and I was looking for a new challenge that my little store could not provide. Truth be told, I thought it would be very similar to my background in “regular retail”. Surprise! I quickly learned there was a huge difference and so much to learn, but I was almost instantly captivated by the nuances of retail success on a college campus. Bloomsburg’s store is owned by the student government, so all of my college store years were spent truly working FOR students. This was a good foundation for thriving today in collegiate retail because my basic education in the industry has always been rooted in the student perspective.
My move to Sidewalk was similarly a quest for a new challenge, but this time a conscious decision that Higher Ed retail IS where I belong. After 17 years at Bloomsburg I had grown my career as far as it would go at that university, so I was exploring how to use my experience in a new way. In Sidewalk I found people who share my passion for student and college store success, with a future-driven focus that really inspires me.
Describe your current role.
Currently I am in a business development role that includes trade show coordination, liaison to industry associations, business strategy, and (most recently) managing our Customer Success team. Shout out to the eastern third of the country where I am also serving as your CSM!
How have stores changed over the past few years?
In the twenty years I have been in this industry, I have seen a gradual shift from managing stores as a local monopoly, to competing in a global internet economy. The most recent five years have been especially hard, and we’ve had to watch many independent stores hit rock bottom and lose their business. Change is required from independent stores moving forward and I’m happy to see them increasingly strip away old assumptions to explore tools well equipped for this new age of market competition.
How has the the path to store success changed over the past few years?
I think the most interesting change is the focus on contributing to the fulfillment of the academic mission and student success goals. This newfound alignment has greatly elevated store value and it’s exciting to watch their success become increasingly more meaningful to universities (beyond the financial return).
What do you think is the biggest opportunity and/or challenge facing college stores today?
I think the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity are the same thing–and that is time. Time is a limited resource, and stores are constantly challenged with needing to accomplish more at a faster pace. However, this moment in time is also stores’ biggest opportunity because there is new and exciting innovation currently available in the market that allows stores to make major strides towards success. 2017 is going to be a pivotal year in our industry and all stores would benefit to consider changes that will not only make the most impact for them, but make the most impact for them long-term.
In your opinion, what is the core value Sidewalk offers its partners?
I would say unique perspective is the core value that Sidewalk offers its partners. As someone who has walked in the shoes of a store manager, I highly value a partner who can approach the problems I am challenged with every day and bring a completely different perspective that helps a solution become obvious. I could educate myself, motivate my team, strive to meet important goals, but stepping outside my role to view a problem from a fresh perspective was most challenging for me. I think others face similar perspective challenges. When combined with Sidewalk’s transparent candor and desire to be a true partner to you, this unique perspective is even more profound. So often I hear about how different and refreshing it is to work with Sidewalk. And that makes me proud.
What was your best day at Sidewalk?
There are a lot of great days to consider, but I think my best day was Sidewalk Summit 2016 in Houston (before CAMEX). We planned and prepared so long for that day and ended up with great attendance. The sessions spurred interesting conversations and important takeaways, and the day was capped off by our bowling party where everyone seemed to truly enjoy themselves. It was the perfect combination of really solid teamwork (and I include our Summit attendees in that team) and just plain fun.
Most valuable thing you’ve learned or done at Sidewalk?
I’ve learned so much working at Sidewalk that it is difficult to pin down the most valuable thing. I also must admit some of the things I have learned I am embarrassed to share. (OK, I had never seen a google doc before I came here. My secret is out.)
If I had to pick, I think the most valuable thing I’ve learned is data-based decision-making. Before I came to Sidewalk I would have said that I only ever made data-based decisions, but I came to realize how many former decisions were actually judgment-based. After so many years, I relied on data in my head as a guiding principle. It is a far different (and more impactful) thing to list out the facts and reach a conclusion based solely on indisputable data.
Favorite book or piece of content you like to share?
Sidewalk has a great tradition of reading and being inspired by current business literature. One book the executive team read and then recommended to all of us is Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage. The book is full of practical wisdom for team building that we’ve pulled from at Sidewalk. I have recommended this book to some store friends who are using it to approach their management and team building in a new way, as well.
We are often asked, “Why is Sidewalk so different from other vendors?” CEO Alan Martin didn’t start out with the intent of creating an unusual culture at an enterprise focused on higher ed course materials. He began with the problem, “Why?” — as in “Why are college textbooks so expensive and how could I help bring that cost down?” That was in 2007 and now, nine years later, Sidewalk is intentionally answering those questions with a corporate culture best served to accomplish the solution in innovative and effective ways. Here’s a little window into the Culture Statement that drives and inspires Sidewalk to approach things differently every day.
Complete transcript below:
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We support self improvement, based on our core belief in agency, and since high performance people are generally self-improving through experience, observation, introspection, reading, and discussion, this usually works out. If our talented people are surrounded by stunning colleagues who are honest with them, and if we provide big challenges to work on, the framework is set for personal development. This allows talented people to manage their own career based on their skills and reputation. We try hard to provide opportunity to grow by surrounding our people with great talent and big challenges.
Another year in Higher Ed is wrapping up, making way for a new year of change and challenges. We snuck in five minutes with Jeff Bischoff, Vice President of Sales & Marketing, to discuss what he currently finds interesting about the higher ed space, strategic opportunities for college stores, and the willingness to break things.
What did you do prior to working at Sidewalk?
I graduated from the University of Utah with a degree in economics before completing an MBA with a certificate in Entrepreneurship from Westminster College. I then went on to work for Goldman Sachs and Pearson Publishing. It was at Pearson Publishing where I realized that the college store had an amazing opportunity to influence and change the world of content in higher education in a very big way.
Describe your current role.
In my current role, I am heavily involved with the market strategy of Sidewalk, which includes identifying problems in the industry, creating solutions, and then bringing those solutions to market. As part of this effort, I oversee the Marketing, Business Development, Customer Success and Sales teams.
I believe that education is one of the most important things in the world. But, I also believe that there are so many things wrong with higher education today. The cost of quality content OUTSIDE of higher education is decreasing, while the cost of quality content INSIDE higher education is rapidly increasing. This increase in cost is forcing students to forego important course materials, settle for weakened course performance, and (in some cases) give up on higher education altogether. Content plays a very important role in this industry and we all have an amazing opportunity to fix it — but time is of the essence.
The most interesting thing I have learned is that course materials in higher education are controlled by only a few large publisher corporations (comprised of virtually the same people playing musical chairs between companies). These publishers have big pockets and create a huge barrier to entry for smaller publishers and content creators. College stores have an amazing opportunity to be an objective voice and help the best content get to campus–not just the content with the biggest sales force.
I firmly believe there is a world where content can be both better AND more affordable. Most solutions right now give up affordability for quality, or give up quality in the name of affordability. I worry that if we don’t democratize content soon, schools and governments will have to step in and we will lose innovation and competition in the higher ed content space forever. We can’t continue to accept and live with the status quo.
That college stores start seeing the important role they play in higher education. College stores should align themselves more with the academic side of the institution, than the auxiliary side (like parking and food services). They can begin to make a big impact in the lives of faculty and students when they do.
Being willing to take risks and break things. Time and time again, we hear stores express that they aren’t able to take risks or rock the boat on their campus–only to see those same stores get outsourced by companies that claim they CAN do bigger and better things (by rocking the boat) weeks later. Stores can no longer fear new ideas. They need to fear old ones.
To start focusing on the real customer: faculty. The more you focus on faculty, the more you help students. They are the real decision makers with the ability to increase quality and lower costs, so long as they have the tools and transparency available to do so.
I think my best all around day at Sidewalk was Sidewalk Summit 2014. We had a great group of stores in attendance and the energy from the sessions and education was almost palpable. It was also the day that we were able to introduce Sidewalk Hero and the importance it can make for the college store industry.
What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned/done at Sidewalk?
The most valuable thing I have been able to do is work alongside, and learn from, our founder and CEO Alan Martin. He is one of the most innovative, optimistic, and humble people I have ever met. He is a man on a mission, with unparalleled passion and tenacity for this industry. It’s what continues to draw me to Sidewalk each and every day.
There are two pieces of content that have had a big impact on me:
The first is a favorite quote that I use as a mission statement in my life. I have it posted in my office and try to read it frequently. I think it fits perfectly with our industry at this time: “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
The second piece is Simon Sinek’s excerpt “Start with Why”, from his Ted Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Every company, movement, group and individual needs to know their “why” if they hope to be successful.