A better way to buy books

To help deal with the budget crisis, the University should consider closing all campus bookstores, permanently. According to the Daily’s March 3 article, “Coffman bookstore opens amid money woes,” the University bookstores’ debt rose from $722,000 in 2000 to $1.8 million in 2002. And while University Bookstores might benefit from consolidation of several bookstores at the new Coffman Union location, erasing the bookstores’ debt will be difficult, if not impossible. By closing campus bookstores, the University could erase a significant source of debt and create a new revenue source by renting out bookstore space to private retailers.

In lieu of brick-and-mortar bookstores, the University could create an online bookstore to provide textbook and other school-related needs. For example, when registering for classes, an online module could inform students what textbooks their class requires and provide a modified search engine that finds the cheapest price for the textbooks in question. If the student was interested in purchasing a textbook online, the University could provide the seller with the student’s shipping address and other information. The student would be responsible for entering billing information. Allowing students to bill their purchases to their Student Accounts Receivable accounts would make online purchases even more efficient.

The cost to the University for an online system would be relatively minor. The University would benefit from cost savings by setting up unique accounts with large, financially stable online retailers. The University took in $14.5 million from textbook sales last year; this figure would be enough to entice these online retailers such as Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com to offer University students and staff exclusive textbook and other school-related deals such as free shipping and handling. Even smaller online entities like VarsityBooks.com already manage several college online bookstores.

This proposal would also cut costs for University students and staff. As Economist Hal Varian said in a New York Times article last year, there exists an extremely competitive online market for commodity items. In particular, online booksellers are very price competitive and will often sacrifice profit margin to gain savvy price comparing customers. If these lower-than-normal prices can be coupled with significantly reduced or completely canceled shipping charges, book shopping customers can almost always save money by shopping online. In addition, online sellers offer consumers the convenience of avoiding a trip to a potentially crowded bookstore.

It appears students around the country are noting the benefits Varian highlighted. According to the organization Selling to Schools, “(a) quarter of college students have purchased textbooks online.” Selling to Schools found that students cite expense and convenience as their reasons for eschewing traditional bookstores. The University could provide these benefits to all students and staff by moving textbook sales online.

Understandably, a decision to close campus bookstores would prove very controversial. Not only do the stores provide quick and easy access to necessary textbooks and other school-related items, they also provide immediate access to general interest books and magazines, convenience store items, and University-related clothes and memorabilia. While most of these amenities would be lost by closing campus bookstores, the University could rent former bookstore space to private vendors willing to provide students and staff with paper, writing and computer supplies, and University-related clothes and memorabilia.

The most troubling aspect of closing campus bookstores, however, would be the resulting job loss for many dedicated and

hardworking bookstore workers. If the University chose to close campus bookstores, it would be expected the University would do everything in its power to find these suddenly unemployed workers alternative employment within the University system.

While closing campus bookstores, especially after the much ballyhooed opening of the Coffman Union store, would be controversial, the benefits associated with such a decision should pique the interest of budget-conscious University administrators. Campus-wide closures would kill a source of University debt. Further, such a move could actually increase the welfare of students and staff; if University members were presented with an easy-to-use interface that gave students and staff full access to the solvent and extremely competitive online market for textbooks and school-related items, students and staff could meet their scholastic supply needs at lower costs.