Online booksellers face legal troubles

Mike Wereschagin

The National Association of College Stores is suing VarsityBooks.com, alleging the online textbook retailer has mislead customers with promises of hefty discounts on course books.
The association filing suit is a nationwide trade group that represents more than 3,000 college stores, including the University Bookstores.
The suit, filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C., contends the online retailer has failed to follow through with 40 percent discounts promised to students in advertisements.
Robert Crabb, director of University Bookstores, agreed the advertised savings were inflated but said the claims have not lured many University students away from campus bookstores.
He said he has reviewed research on six online booksellers this fall and that most findings point to limited savings.
“We got six new students to shop at six of the (online) sellers to see how competitive they were,” Crabb said. “On the whole, only about 25 percent of the orders were filled, and most of those were with new books.”
He added the site operators claimed to have used books but often told the students they were out of stock.
Crabb and other researchers found most discounts on new books ranged from 5 to 10 percent. In most cases, the cost for used books was comparable or higher than the campus bookstore rates. Those figures did not include shipping and handling fees.
“The savings are pretty minor, and they’re nothing like the 40 percent Varsity claims,” Crabb said.
Though he had no exact figures, Crabb said the effect of e-commerce on University Bookstore sales has been negligible.
“It really hasn’t had an effect on us,” Crabb said. “(Recent sales trends) are hard to measure right now because of the semester change.”
Crabb said University Bookstores started selling books online to stay on top of technological advances in the industry. The online store was not heavily advertised this semester because they wanted to work out potential computer glitches.
The bookstore director said he is not overly worried about losing business to online textbook companies.
“The University is too big for a nationwide company like Varsity to provide the personalized services we have,” Crabb said. “Our rapport with professors and students will keep us competitive. (Online booksellers) can compete at small- to medium-sized colleges, but we’re too big for them to do that here.”
He said the lawsuit targeting VarsityBooks.com is not necessary.
“Students are smart enough to do the math and figure it out for themselves,” Crabb said.
A source close to VarsityBooks.com, who requested to remain anonymous, said the claims made in the lawsuit are absolutely false. The source added that the company researches its discount claims with its distributor, Baker & Taylor, Inc.
“(The lawsuit) is completely without merit,” the source said. “Students benefit from the choice we provide them. It is really unfortunate that (the online store) is trying to fight that.”

Mike Wereschagin welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3226.