I chose to conduct my field research where I work: at the Temple University bookstore in the basement of the Student Center. The bookstore is a fairly large space. Upon entering, there are three directions in which customers can travel: left, to the register area; straight, to the textbook department; or right, to the vast expanse of clothing displays throughout the floor. There are advertisements visible immediately upon entering. On the windows of the store there are usually ads for whatever promotion we are currently running alongside some general ads trying to make people aware of the benefits of renting books from us. These promotional ads are also plastered on practically every surface of the store. There is also a television behind the front registers that plays a stream of advertisements on a loop. We are currently having a 25%-off-all-t-shirts sale, and large posters proclaiming the details are hanging from the ceiling and sitting on top of every clothing rack. One of the ads in front of the textbook desk, where I sit, encourages customers to engage with the t-shirt sale on social media by tweeting a picture of any tee they purchase to the hashtag “#mytee.”
The people in the store include the employees and the customers. For the purposes of this assignment I decided to focus on the customers. Most of the people who shop in the store appear to be in their late teens to early twenties (“typical” college age), and today was no exception. I only observed a handful of parents, staff, or other older adults shopping, and none of them came to the textbook desk; they were all focused on the merchandise area of the store. The student customers include both males and females, and they appear racially diverse. There is even a group or two of international students. Most often if students were shopping for clothes, it seemed that they would arrive in pairs or groups; they would ask one another for advice about their purchases. When in need of textbooks, however, students tended to come alone. The two media devices I noticed most often were MP3 players and cell phones.
Customers constantly interact with their mobile devices, specifically their smartphones, when they come to find textbooks. At this point in the semester our aisles are closed for inventory and to prevent theft, so anyone in need of a book needs to come to me at the textbook information desk so I can locate the book for them. This often leads to confusion because many people are not prepared with the information they need in order for me to be able to locate the book: title, author, ISBN, course number, or professor’s last name (and as a frightening side note, you’d be surprised at how many people have literally NO idea what class they’re taking or who the professor is. I often wonder about those customers’ final grades). People then resort to their smartphones to find the information they need. While observing, I came across a few different customers who all used their smartphones for a different textbook-related need.
One customer, a tall white man, did know the book he needed, but we had just sold the last copy about an hour prior to his arrival. He had already checked the library to no avail and wanted to know if the Center City or Ambler campus stores had the book in stock, but we are unable to access that information on our system. We offered to call, but he politely declined and said he would look the information up himself. He stood at the desk and used his smartphone to access the website, and eventually (a long eventually, because the WiFi in the store is horrendous) found that Ambler was his saving grace. He thanked us for our help and left to catch the shuttle.
Another customer, a small Asian girl who seemed to be an international student, needed an accounting textbook, but she was unable to pronounce the title or author’s name that was on her syllabus. She accessed the syllabus through the Blackboard app. She handed her iPhone to me so I could read it and type it into the system. This has happened before, but this willingness to hand an expensive device to a total stranger never ceases to amaze me.
The final relevant customer with whom I interacted was a bit disgruntled. He was an average-height, slender Hispanic-appearing man who wanted a required book that would have cost him hundreds of dollars. He was with a friend, and together they questioned me about what I could do for them. I advised them to check the library, so while at the desk the customer accessed the library’s website on his Samsung Galaxy (I think?). They didn’t have it, so he wanted me to check Zavelle’s. We aren’t associated with that bookstore and are pretty much their direct competition, so it is #1 not really allowed for us to suggest Zavelle’s to customers and #2 impossible for us to know their inventory or prices. He asked about Amazon, and I told him that, again, we have no way to know. He was clearly frustrated. He appeared to use his phone’s browser to begin researching book prices at either Zavelle’s or Amazon as he left the desk.
Observing these three distinct instances of mobile device use during the span of just two hours intrigued me. It seems that using mobile technology is an integral part of a student’s textbook-shopping experience. The last customer, who wanted to know prices at other stores, may have sparked an idea for my final project: an app that would allow students to view availability and prices of textbooks at competing stores (and perhaps libraries) so they could choose the best prices or the fastest means of getting the book they need. It is relevant to social justice in an economic sense, as the prices of textbooks are downright unreasonable at times. Some students are unaware that there are cheaper options than the school store, and some students just cannot afford to pay for them at all. Perhaps an app of this kind could reduce some of the burden of the cost of higher education on students who are already forced to take out tens of thousands of dollars in tuition loans.