Stocking the library online Books: With a few keystrokes, readers can search the World Wide Web for the best buy on best sellers. Prices widely.

June 01, 1998|By BRUCE MOHL AND PATRICIA WEN | BRUCE MOHL AND PATRICIA WEN,BOSTON GLOBE

Online book-buying is all the rage right now.

Wall Street is in love with the concept. Bookstores are racing to get on the Internet. And many consumers, judging from company sales figures, are finding that clicking their mouse to buy a best seller is just as satisfying as thumbing through the pages of the book in person.

We decided to check it out, and what we found surprised us. Online book-buying is definitely fun and convenient. Sites even are offered where you can plug in the name of a book and let the computer shop for the best deal. Consumer activist Edgar Dworsky's www.consumerworld.org offers several.

But with the exception of Shopping.com, we found online books a little pricey. Shipping drives up the cost considerably - as much as 22 percent over bookstore prices. Only buying in bulk would drive the differential down, because shipping charges remain relatively stable whether you order one book or 10.

Given the gloom-and-doom talk about independent bookstores, we found some of the best deals at a smaller outfit, WordsWorth, and not at book giants Borders, Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com. On three of our five books, WordsWorth had the lowest price or matched it. Shopping.com was by far the next lowest.

Hillel Stavis, president of WordsWorth, said our results match what he has found. But he said he doesn't have the money to publicize his prices the way Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com can.

"It's very hard for us to compete," he said. "But in the end, the best way of shopping for a book is to just walk in the store."

Online bookstores beg to differ. They say their prices are well below what bookstores charge, and the delivery fee can be minimized by ordering several books at once.

"Your real savings come when you buy two or more books and have them delivered at the same time," said Beth Garson, a spokeswoman for Amazon.com of Seattle.

For example, buying the best seller "Tuesdays With Morrie" from Amazon.com costs $17.92 delivered - $3.95 of that for shipping. WordsWorth charges $14.67, sales tax included.

Yet, buying all five of our books with one order through Amazon.com would cost $66.78 delivered, slightly less than the $68.23 WordsWorth would charge. Amazon.com charges $3 per shipment and 95 cents per book for standard delivery, which is a snail's pace three to seven business days.

Ben Boyd, director of communications for BarnesandNoble.com in New York, said price is not the only way to compare the two shopping experiences.

He said online shoppers not only save the time of driving to the store and shopping there, but they can also search more easily for what they want.

"Say you want a book on vegetarian cooking with two specific ingredients," he said. "You can find it quickly with our search engine. All of that is part of the savings equation."

Online booksellers have seen their sales skyrocket in recent months. Amazon.com reported last month that its sales during the first three months of this year were $87.4 million, up 32 percent over the $66 million in revenues reported for the last three months of last year.

Even so, the low book prices Amazon.com is charging apparently are taking a toll. The company has yet to turn a profit and lost $9.26 million during the first three months of the year, about the same as it did in the previous quarter.

"There's an open question whether anyone is going to make any money doing this," said Carole Horne, head buyer and manager of Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass.

Information: www.wordsworth. com, www.barnes andnoble.com, www.amazon.com and www.borders. com.

Pub Date: 6/01/98

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