EDITORIALS

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February 6, 2009

The price is wrong

The U of C needs to better its brand name by spreading its merchandise.

If you go to most college towns—Evanston, for example—you’ll find quite a few things you can’t in Hyde Park. An all-night diner, somewhere to buy socks, a Chipotle—places that seem foreign in our neck of the woods. You’ll also encounter multiple stores that sell university-branded apparel, most at reasonable prices.

Some establishments may be tougher than others to bring to Hyde Park, but the dearth of U of C merchandise can—and should—be easily fixed. At issue is the University’s contract with Barnes & Noble, which gives the bookstore an on-campus monopoly. As a result, anything with a University logo retails at astronomically high prices. A hoodie, for example, can be had for the nominal fee of approximately $300.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration—it actually retails for a frugal $49.98—but as anyone who’s tried to buy mesh shorts ($24.98), a ballpoint pen ($26.98), sweatpants ($34.98), or a polo shirt ($75) can attest, the prices are absurd. As if the bafflingly expensive textbooks that share space on the second floor aren’t enough, buying anything emblazoned with a phoenix comes at a pretty penny.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. You don’t need to be a Chicago School economist to realize that monopolies lead to exorbitant prices. It’s not in students’ best interest to have to purchase University gear—crucial to any undergraduate’s wardrobe—from a store lacking competition. Neither, for that matter, is it in the best interest of alumni, proud parents, siblings, nor even prospective students looking for a sweatshirt to show off back home. The licensing deal drives down not just demand, but school spirit as well.

If the monopoly hurts consumers, it also adversely affects the party that stands to benefit the most from merchandise sales: the University itself. By limiting the venues in which its gear can be sold, the U of C is missing a prime chance to market its brand to the city and to visitors from around the world. As Hyde Park and the city become new tourist destinations, both the University’s coffers and reputation would stand to benefit from greater exposure.

The University ought not to renew the Barnes & Noble contract that grants exclusive logo rights. Instead, it should widely license the U of C name and logos, and encourage local and national businesses to manufacture and carry such merchandise. In doing so, it would open up an important market for competition, thus allowing for fairer prices. At the University that revolutionized capitalism, students looking for a piece of school spirit should be free to choose.