U bookstores face online competition

by Liz Bogut

The online revolution hasn’t made life easier for everybody, and certainly not for campus bookstores facing heavily advertised Internet competitors.
To keep students loyal, campus bookstores are spending more time and money finding out how to make textbook shopping at school cheaper and more convenient than textbook shopping online.
At the University, stores have made efforts to stock less expensive texts and to help shoppers get in and out in less time. Managers are even considering adding Starbucks coffee shops to spice up their stores.
The director of University Bookstores says such improvements and the uniqueness of an on-campus shopping experience will keep the online book retailers at bay.

Online options
In 1995, Amazon.com began selling everything from textbooks to music to electronics, most with low prices and cheap, timely delivery.
Since then, textbook providers have sprung up over the Web, using scores of strategies to carve out their own piece of the college book market.
Advertisers commonly employ slogans boasting low prices, fast shipping and point-and-click convenience to entice students to their Web sites.
“We are empowering students with choices in a market that was once a monopoly,” said Jody Gershoni, director of communications for VarsityBooks.com.
VarsityBooks.com offers students up to 40 percent discounts on new textbooks, and BigWords.com promises students a 40 percent savings on new and used books, according to their Web sites.
Amazon.com, BigWords.com and Barnes and Nobles’ site, BN.com, all advertise fast shipping at low prices, while VarsityBooks.com guarantees customers will receive their order in three business days for a flat rate of $4.95 per order.
Recently, online textbook retailers began offering students, student organizations and professors the option to join affiliate or associate groups and qualify for discounts.
VarsityBooks.com offers students a 5 percent discount when they sign up as affiliates and refer friends to the site.
Student groups, professors and college departments can sign up through the VarsityBooks.com affiliate program and earn money for scholarship funds and philanthropy.
BigWords.com and Amazon.com also offer similar programs, providing incentives to those who join.
Online textbook companies are also using a technique that is closer to home. Many retailers are hiring students to promote their services on college campuses.
“This grass-roots effort of students is the heart and soul of our marketing effort,” said Gershoni.
Retailers are relying on these incentives and the convenience of ordering online to compete with campus bookstores.
Research leans toward online
The advertising blitz — in magazines, newspapers, on campus, online and on TV — is working.
Student Monitor, a research company studying college students, conducted a 1999 study of 1,200 full-time undergraduate college students at four-year colleges and universities across the country, asking where they bought their textbooks.
The results showed 8 percent of students had purchased textbooks online. Of that group, 46 percent said online prices were better.
Students used Amazon.com the most, with BN.com and VarsityBooks.com tied for second. Students who have not purchased books over the Internet said they chose not to because of security concerns.
Although a small number of students had already purchased books online, one in four students said it was “very” or “somewhat” likely they would in the near future, according to the survey.
The survey also found most students became aware of online textbook services through friends or classmates.
U bookstores fight back
To compete for the technology-savvy student market, the University launched its own online book service last September.
Since then, more than 1,000 textbook orders have been placed through the Web site, said Robert Crabb, director of University Bookstores.
In addition to online service, Crabb said University bookstores will continue to make it easier for students to buy books.
“We are trying to address the space problem we are having in the West Bank bookstore,” he said. “Remodeling is definitely an option.”
One remodeling option could be the Williamson Hall bookstore. Crabb said expansion of the store would make it easier for students to find books. A new Starbucks coffee shop could also be part of the renovation.
“It would be a very user-friendly facility for students,” Crabb said.
Because campus bookstores offer resources unique to the University, the online companies will always be second, Crabb argues.
“Online services just can’t compete with the way the University caters to the students’ needs,” Crabb said.

Liz Bogut covers faculty and welcomes comments at [email protected] She can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3225.