Net rivals for college bookstores

Textbooks: Online sellers promising big discounts aim to grab a piece of the $3 billion market.

August 23, 1999|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

It's two weeks before the start of classes, and Towson University store manager Rosemary Epperson is crossing her fingers, hoping a beefed-up staff and 15 checkout stands she's ordered will keep students from having to stand in long lines.

"We think it'll be no more than a five- to 10-minute wait," she says.

Epperson has good reason to keep her young customers comfortable. Long used to being the only game in town, many campus bookstores around the country are bracing themselves for their first taste of competition. Their challengers are off campus -- way off campus.

Nearly a dozen discount textbook sellers such as Varsity Books and Big Words have opened shop on the Internet over the past year, angling for a piece of the $3 billion college book market.

Their pitch to students is simple: If you're tired of paying big bucks and elbowing your way through crowded bookstore aisles, try us.

Slowly, students are doing just that. Last year only 5 percent of students bought schoolbooks online, according to market research firm Student Monitor LLC. But analysts are betting this could be the semester all that changes.

eFollett, an online bookstore owned by textbook giant Follett, launched a $10 million ad campaign this month enticing students to "Get Out of Line" and shop for their textbooks on the Net.

"It's like a no-brainer," says Student Monitor's Eric Weil. "The one thing all students have in common is [thinking] what a pain in the butt getting textbooks is."

Big hassle -- and big expense. The average student spends between $275 and $400 on textbooks each semester, according to the National Association of College Stores. Online bookstores are touting discounts as high as 50 percent off the sticker price.

That's not the only gap online bookstores are closing. In the past, the campus bookstore was the only place students could find out which books their professors required.

Now Varsity Books and other online upstarts are tapping state public records laws to force colleges to hand over their required reading lists.

As a result, Varsity Books, the leader in this category, makes it possible for students at more than 300 schools -- including Towson, Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland -- to order everything they need with a few simple mouse clicks.

Campus bookstores are fighting back. This month the National Association of College Stores, which represents 3,000 campus stores across the United States and Canada, began investigating the prices textbook publishers and distributors are charging online rivals such as Varsity Books.

"They're selling books at prices lower than college bookstores can even buy the books," says Jerry Buchs of the association. "We believe this is price discrimination against college bookstores."

Some campus bookstores are requiring students to present a receipt if they want to return a book as a way to encourage them to shop on campus. And they're countering with slogans of their own.

"No one knows what students need better than their campus bookstore," Buchs says.

Questions for online textbook buyers

Do you like your textbooks new or used?

Most campus bookstores sell used textbooks, too. Only a few of their online counterparts do. If you really want to save money, a used book bought on campus will nearly always be cheaper than a new book bought online.

Does the online store have the right book?

Textbooks can change drastically from one edition to the next -- even if the cover looks the same. Before you order, make sure you're getting the right book. Hint: Search by the book's ISBN number, which is a unique identifier for each edition.

How much does the store charge for shipping?

Some online booksellers charge a flat rate, others tack on a fee for every book you order -- quickly chipping away at any savings. Also, make sure the store delivers books quickly -- certainly before midterms.

What is the return policy?

If you drop a class, the good ol' campus bookstore will almost always give you a refund. Make sure your online bookstore does, too -- or hold off buying online until you're sure about your class schedule.

Is this really the cheapest price?

Click around. To save the most money, you might have to order some books from one place and others from somewhere else (but watch those shipping charges). Also, try a meta-search sites such as Best Book Buys (www.bestbookbuys.com).

For more information

Varsity Books: www.varsitybooks.com

eFollett: www.efollett.com

eCampus: www.ecampus.com

Textbooks.Com: www.textbooks. com

Big Words: bigwords.com

The U Zone: www.uzone.net

Textbook Source: www.textbooksource.net

Classbook.Com: www.classbook.com

Amazon: www.amazon.com

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