Like many libraries trying to do more with less, the Aurora Public Library, CO, was looking for a cost-effective way to expand its footprint in the community. What it found was a most unlikely partner.
Last month, the library opened its newest satellite branch inside a local Kmart, in a 600-square foot space formerly occupied by a credit union. Situated at the front of the store, the location functions primarily as a public computing center, with 11 PCs available for use. Visitors can use them for an hour as a guest, or as long as they like with a library card. A library aide is on hand to answer any questions. There aren’t any books kept on site, but patrons can use the library’s online catalog to place holds and have their materials delivered to the store. They can also return books and sign up for a library card. And while they can’t pay late fees in cash, they can do so with a credit card on the library’s website.
Following a soft opening June 4th, the location drew 763 visitors in its first month in operation, according to Betsy Baxendale, library supervisor for the north region of the Aurora Public Library. There were those who used the computers to apply for a job and those who simply wanted to check their email. Most were regular Kmart customers, while some were drawn to the library specifically.
“Some people have used our other locations and have found this to be very convenient for them,” said Baxendale. “But we’ve also been getting people who are not traditional library users, and that’s very positive for us.”
The location grew out of a citywide initiative to increase public access to computers and the Internet. Patti Bateman, Aurora’s library and cultural services director, cited a recent study by the local school district that found one third of individuals living in northern Aurora—where many immigrant and low-income families live and the Kmart is located—do not own personal computers. Nationwide, 36 percent of households with an annual income below $25,000 and 19 percent of households with an income below $50,000 do not own computers, according to the U.S. Census.
Though this is the first such computer center in a retail store, the library also operates computer centers at two local recreation centers, according to the Denver Post. A similar, larger center is scheduled to open in late August at a former library branch, which will now also hold a teen/community center operated by the town’s parks and recreation department.
The Kmart store, though an unconventional choice, seemed a natural fit to library officials. Up until 2009, when its budget was cut in half, the library had operated a computing center in a strip mall across the street.
“There were only five computers, but they were being used all the time by people looking for jobs and also kids from the high school three blocks up the street. So we knew that in that area computers were a major public need,” Bateman told LJ. Staff saw the vacant space inside Kmart, approached them about renting, and then took the idea to the city council.
The end result is an outpost that runs at a fraction of the cost of a conventional branch. Start-up costs, including the computers, furniture, and connectivity, was $35,000, and the monthly rent comes to $2,450, according to the library’s operations manager, Steve Wasiecko.
In contrast, the branch that used to be across the street cost $139,796 per year to operate. (It was four times as big, took twice as much staff to run, and housed materials as well as computers.)
“We didn’t have a lot of money, so we needed to do this in the most inexpensive way possible,” said Bateman.
Kmart spokesman Howard Riefs said its partnership with the library is a first for the company.
Jim Wisner, a retail consultant based in Libertyville, IL, said the deal could increase traffic for Kmart and offer valuable exposure for the library. However, he noted that both parties will need to look closely at who’s using the facility over time to determine its true value.
“Libraries typically get good foot traffic, but I’m sure Kmart wants to know how many of those visits turn into sales for the store,” said Wisner.
We know at least one has already: on one comment card Baxendale read, a respondent said she used one of the computers to look up a recipe she’d forgotten, then headed to the store’s grocery section to buy everything she needed to prepare it.
Kmart has reason to seek out innovative partnerships that might lead to increased traffic: the chain has struggled in recent years against competitors like Wal-Mart and Target, with sales falling $3.3 billion since 2006.
Baxendale said her immediate goal was to simply open the new location, but that she’ll continue monitoring usage over the coming months to make sure it lives up to her (great) expectations. Shuffling through comment cards left by recent visitors, she read feedback from a woman who’d dropped her kids off at the computer center while she shopped.
“Sometimes people are put off by the library building,” said Baxendale, “but if it’s in another place where they already go, then that’s the place they want to be.”