Retrenchments loom at Van Schaik as book sales plummet

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Book sales across the country have taken a massive knock in recent months, the South African Booksellers’ Association (Saba) said, with some members noting an 80% drop in sales in the first quarter of 2019.
Its largest member, prominent academic bookstore chain Van Schaik, which has more than 70 stores in SA, Botswana, Swaziland and Namibia, has started retrenchment processes due to the significant decline in book sales between January and April.
Saba academic sector head Mohamed Kharwa said the industry as a whole was severely affected, reportedly due to fewer students buying textbooks.
Kharwa said the association largely attributed the decline to the shift in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) business model, which no longer ring-fenced student spend.
The NSFAS said in January that the scheme would pay allowances directly to students’ bank accounts instead of using the voucher system.
The vouchers were limited to certain stores, such as Van Schaik and supermarkets.
“The average that we are picking up is a fall of between 30% and 40% and that was just immediately after the decision taken by the NSFAS. Students are not buying textbooks,” Kharwa said.
“A concern is that a student without a textbook is unlikely to get a quality education and a broad sense of the subject, increasing pressure on academics to try and fill the gap.”
Van Schaik managing director Stephan Erasmus said the chain had sold 125,000 fewer books between January and April, when compared with the same period in 2018, resulting in a 22% sales decline.
“The decision to pay students in cash has had a huge impact on our business.
“We have commenced the Section 189 [restructuring] process but we are still in the phase of consulting with employees.
“As yet, nobody has been retrenched.
“At this stage, we cannot say how many stores or how many employees might be affected.
“But you can imagine if some stores show a decline in sales of 30%, 40%, 50% and sometimes up to 70%, then you need less staff,” Erasmus said.
Kharwa said Saba had attempted to cross-reference whether or not the purchase of e-books had contributed to the decline, but found this unlikely.
“So we can’t really attribute it to a shift in behaviour or consumption format.
“Booksellers are under pressure and some have already had to close their stores.
“Going forward, if we don’t have a change in policy and ring-fencing of the funds, what we are likely to see apart from a poorer quality of education is that when students do decide they want books, there aren’t going to be any stores left on the campuses.”
A 20-year-old first year economics student at NMU, who asked not to be named, said the R5,000 he received from the NSFAS at the start of 2019 for textbooks had already been spent on various items.
These included fast food, clothing and alcohol.
When asked how he was keeping up with course work, the student said: “In most cases, I go to the library to photocopy the work we will be doing in that week.
“It’s also a lot cheaper to buy the books second-hand from other students.
“I rely a lot on the slides shown in class and sometimes read the books on my laptop, downloading them for free.”
NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo said following consultations with various stakeholders, it had redesigned its processes to ensure accurate payments to students and universities occurred timeously.
“In our consultation it was established the middle-man or sole supplier always benefits more than the student through [the] SMS or voucher system.

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