St. Petersburg College has chosen a new vendor to manage its campus bookstores.
The board of trustees gave staffers the okay to contract with Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, saying it offered a much better deal for students.
"We want to make sure they have the best technology, the best materials, at the best price," said college trustee Deveron Gibbons.
For years, there were claims that students were being overcharged because the current vendor, Follett Higher Education Group, was adding shipping or freight fees on top of its profit margin for each textbook sold.
College president Bill Law, who joined SPC in 2010, acknowledged a "bad history" with Follett. He didn't blame the vendor. Instead, he said he was disappointed that language in the contract allowed Follett to collect extra for freight.
"I only care that my students are getting the best deal and that my faculty are being supported," Law said. "Now I can close the door on something that had been knocking around here for a long time and declare victory."
Under the new five-year contract, Barnes & Noble will cap its gross profit margin at 25 percent. And it won't charge extra for freight. If books are purchased online, shipping will also be free. Now, students pay $5.95 per order for shipping.
SPC's current contract with Follett, which expires at the end of June, lets Follett collect freight charges. The Follett contract also allows a 25 percent profit margin for new books and a 30 percent margin on certain categories of textbooks, such as books that include audio CDs or other extras.
Former SPC trustee Dick Johnston had repeatedly urged the college to explore alternatives to Follett. In June 2011, Johnston suggested just a six-month contract renewal, but Law convinced him it was necessary to renew the agreement for the full year to give the college time to do extensive research on alternatives.
SPC hired a consultant and spent about six months studying the matter, Law said, then put out a request for bids. In January, three vendors — Follett, Barnes & Noble and Neebo — submitted proposals. A 14-member team including staff, faculty and a student evaluated the bids. In the end, they gave Barnes & Noble top marks in every category.
The agreement with Barnes & Noble is being finalized and will go into effect in July.
Each year, the college will be able to renegotiate certain items, such as provisions regarding electronic books. The vendor will have the opportunity to modify its proposal to meet the college's needs, and if that's not possible, SPC can look elsewhere, said Doug Duncan, the college's senior vice president of administrative/business services and information technology.
Annual sales at the SPC bookstores are projected at about $16.5 million, he said. The college expects a return of about $2 million each year in commission.
In 2009, the Times reported allegations by Bob Stubblefield, former manager of SPC's Clearwater campus bookstore, that Follett was overcharging students.
The company had tacked on freight charges, claiming the contract allowed it. Between 1995 and 2004, SPC students were overcharged $800,000 for textbooks, according to documents Stubblefield provided. The college benefited as well, because it got commissions on each sale. In all, SPC made about $80,000 extra off its students during that period.
Since 2004, SPC's contracts with Follett have included specific language that allowed the company to collect extra for freight.
"I wasn't going to approve a contract with that stuff in it," Law said.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.