Can library suppliers be better than Amazon?

In today’s world, customer expectations are rising and a gap is being created. Whether it’s a student’s expectation of the library or a library’s expectation of the supplier – we are now all challenged by what is widely known as ‘The Amazon Effect’.

Amazon has singlehandedly raised the bar of customer/user expectations. Focusing on the customer has been the hallmark of Amazon since the early days. And now, due to this company’s dedication to exceptional service and delivery, those levels that were once the exception have become the rule. As a result, the recent Library Journal Collection Development survey reported that 68% of libraries use online retailers such as Amazon as part of their supplier mix, because other suppliers are just not keeping up and it’s necessary for libraries to act fast.

In the UK, many libraries have run specific programmes on getting books to students quickly – not just library collections, but the specific books the student wants. Nottingham Trent University for instance implement the ‘Get My Book’ campaign where students can request books to support their academic studies and Nottingham Trent aims to deliver their requests back within 3 working days, which is about as long as a student will wait if they have to.

Amazon aggregate availability of millions of titles and commit to deliver those titles; usually next day if that’s the service you are willing to pay for. Due to this compelling service offer customers, and specifically library customers, have chosen to compromise the usual demands they put on typical library vendors (and even their own personal ethical standards, such as support of local bookshops). Libraries in particular have been forced to neglect their usual process and procedure requirements in order to get what they really need from Amazon quickly, because speed of supply is critical – even if this results in more admin for them.

But, as a library, can you have your cake and eat it too?

Shouldn’t library suppliers look at this shift and ask themselves – could we do better to supply our library customers? Rather than immediately defending all the other complex things that we do? Some of which, yes, are critical to library management. But couldn’t we just work a little bit harder to improve what we do rather than looking backwards and listing reasons why we have always existed?

It still rings true that library suppliers, like wholesalers, sit right in the middle of the supply chain. If we can’t add value and deliver what our customers want they’ll just go directly to publishers or better sources. We have to earn our place in the library supply chain otherwise we have no right to be there.

There are lots of historic reasons why we do what we do as library suppliers. From specialist fonts on spine labels to pencil ticks on the 5th page of a book to indicate an RFID tag has been programmed and we could go on…

However there is a more serious point to this. As an industry we’ve got to question whether all this ‘additional work‘ that we do adds real value and if so, whether it’s worth paying for and waiting for.

Library Directors and managers need to also ask ‘is there a better way?’ What value do these complexities bring for the waiting student? Do libraries want to pay for it or is it better to try and simplify and focus on those elements that really add value to the end student?

Can we engage as an industry to simplify and focus on what students really need? 

At Dawson Books we think we can.

If library suppliers could work with libraries to simplify processes and truly understand each other’s needs then couldn’t we also achieve better supply times? Furthermore this could save money if achieved en masse as an industry.

The public libraries have achieved this on the servicing front. Endless budget cuts have forced them to take minimal servicing and standardise nationally. This has in turn meant our public library business (Bertram Library Services) has automated the servicing process and it now costs half the time to process books through this work stream. It’s great to hold up the public libraries as a shining example here; albeit the story behind why they had to do this is less positive. With all the challenges in the academic library space however, should we look at this simplification as a way of making budgets go further? As a priority?

Since the purchase of Dawson Books (as part of the Bertram Group) by Aurelius in February 2018 we have rigorously applied value stream and lean methodology to see how we could simplify processes to improve supply times. Libraries have been telling us over and over again that this is what their students want. The basics!

We immediately got the Operational experts at Aurelius on our workflow and within a few weeks they had identified ‘waste’ and unnecessary processes in order to speed up supply. At the same time we were completing a project on our customer web interface dawsonenter to surface the actual real-time data that we had in Bertrams from their 20 million holding of titles. This now means that having simplified and eradicated waste Dawson can, for the upcoming peak academic period,  supply any in stock book, serviced,  within a couple of days of you placing the order – as standard.

This is a significant improvement, but could we do even more by simplifying further?

Last year we launched a project and worked with NAG to try and get academic libraries to adopt the industry standard in servicing. Many libraries have looked at this enthusiastically and have worked to reduce complexity. However we haven’t reached that critical mass whereby the standard is the majority, which will then allow us to pass the time saving and simplification benefits back onto the library by way of price reduction or further improved speed of supply.

It’s like a production line in our warehouse. The more standard processes we have the quicker we can get the books out. Our lean operation is perfectly poised to pass this benefit back to libraries – when they are ready to simplify. We can even show you the number of additional books you can buy if you adopt standard servicing. If you’re struggling to convince peers and colleagues of these types of changes then we can help provide the data and evidence so you can build the business case.

A recent example is our work with Leeds Beckett University. Within this organisation they overcame resistance and are now enjoying the positive implications of standardised servicing; they have saved themselves so much time and they have made it easier for Dawson to supply their books. A year on from implementation, with this new way of working, the library has not had a single student feedback or a single instance of anything going wrong as a result of the change– it’s like no one beyond the library staff noticed, which is the best testament you can have. So it begs the question why are more libraries not willing to switch?

As well as continuing to encourage more libraries to standardise, our next step in applying the ‘online retail model’ to library supply is to move our service forward with the use of the technology we have in our Wordery business. If we incorporate this into our non-stock sourcing process, we will be able to be clear on availability and times scales for delivery when we do not have a title in stock (even Amazon doesn’t always do this!).

At Dawson Books we do think libraries should be able to have their cake and eat it and we are determined to get to a point where we can pass them the fork.

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