A Textbook Case
Virtual booksellers heat up the textbook market
WASHINGTON — Armed with flyers, posters, banners, and T-shirts, Alcide King is trying to convince fellow students at Howard University they can avoid long lines at the campus-owned bookstore by merely logging onto the Internet to buy textbooks.
During the first week of school, King and a staff of five students blanket the campus with posters and fliers advertising VarsityBooks.com, an electronic commerce Web site listing campus course textbooks.
At a table in the student center, King and his cohorts tout the Web site, which offers students a way to buy new textbooks at discounts of up to 40 percent. “We’ll have price comparison lists to let students see the difference in book costs,” King says on the eve of the first day of school.
Just as large chains like Barnes & Noble, Follett, and Wallace have consolidated their grip on the lucrative $5.8-billion-a-year college textbook market in recent years, muscling out mom-and-pop stores with their buying might, these bookstore behemoths now face stiff competition from online textbook companies.
Internet companies like VarsityBooks.com and BigWords.com, playing to busy students’ dislike of waits and their belief they are getting gouged, contend that they can provide textbooks within three days at prices up to 40 percent less.
In some cases, the online booksellers successfully have hit colleges and universities with federal Freedom of Information Act or state open records requests to crack the lists of required books that students need.
But critics and competitors contend it’s still a caveat emptor atmosphere with sometimes hidden costs such as shipping. In addition, some books may be older editions and few used books are available online.
At stake is not just who will dominate textbook distribution, but the very future of campus retail bookstores — which can provide hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to colleges and universities in space rentals, book sales rights, and logo rights.
The textbook powerhouses say the final chapter hasn’t been written yet. To counter the online buying trend, Barnes & Noble, Follett, and other companies have launched their own Web sites to foster online purchases.
And they’re exploring legal recourse. The Internet booksellers’ discounts have brought scrutiny from the National Association of College Stores (NACS), a trade association representing more than 3,000 campus stores nationwide.
Association officials say their attorneys have uncovered evidence that Internet companies are getting favorable book pricing deals from publishers and distribution companies that have not been made available to traditional retailers.
Such discriminatory pricing is a practice considered illegal under federal antitrust laws. The online companies, however, deny that they receive favorable pricing on the books they sell.
Meanwhile, campus retailers have turned to the Internet to enhance — not replace — their current operations. They view online textbook ordering as an improvement in customer service.
The association, for instance, is distributing an electronic commerce software package to its member stores that allows them to help faculty members publish course booklists on a Web site.
“What we’re dealing with is a new business model for our members,” says Jerry Buchs, a spokesman for the association.
The Next New Frontier
Here at Howard, King is the lead campus representative of VarsityBooks.com, which is based here in the nation’s capitol. He, along with a nationwide force of 2,000 students, is helping VarsityBooks.com lead a grassroots marketing push on nearly 300 college campuses around the country this fall.
A finance major from Biloxi, Miss., King is attracted to e-commerce as a possible career. So when the college junior heard last spring VarsityBooks.com was looking for campus representatives, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I see this as a chance to learn about electronic commerce while I’m still in college,” King says.
During the summer, King was among a handful of Black students who attended a three-day campus representative training conference in northern Virginia. King recalls meeting a handful of Black students, including two from other historically Black colleges and universities and several others from traditionally White institutions, along with Hispanic and Asian American students.
To the surprise of the students, VarsityBooks.com chief executive officer Eric Kuhn announced a compensation program that is expected to give lead campus representatives ownership shares in the company.
“We want to build the motivation of our lead representatives because so much depends upon their efforts,” says Tim Levy, chairman and co-founder of VarsityBooks.com.
By seeking out student representatives like King, VarsityBooks.com has taken a unique tack for an online company. E-commerce companies typically rely upon media advertising to promote their online presence.
For VarsityBooks.com, employing campus representatives is critical to the company’s growth. The student reps, who are paid hourly and by commission, enable the company to have tailored marketing campaigns on individual campuses.
To purchase the textbooks online, students are instructed to access the VarsityBooks.com Web site by computer. They can search for books by college, title, author, or its International Standard Book Number. Upon making an online purchase with a credit card, the students wait several days for delivery by United Parcel Service.
Launched in 1998, the company initially sold textbooks at five campuses in the Washington, D.C., area. By spring 1999, VarsityBooks.com had representatives on 57 campuses. Though the company now has representatives on more than 300 campuses, Levy says students from campuses everywhere in the nation are using the Web site to buy textbooks.
“We have sold textbooks to students virtually on every campus in the nation,” he says.
Adam Slavin, a junior at Towson State University in Maryland has purchased computer science and math textbooks from the VarsityBooks.com since last year. He says it was possible to find his books even though the university was not listed on the VarsityBooks.com site.
“I saved a $150 on a total of 18 books during one semester,” Slavin says.
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