Weekly Wire
NewCityNet E's For Education

By Tony Peregrin

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  Unless you're a freshman overly eager to soak up the "college experience," more than likely you're the kind of student who loathes buying textbooks. The painfully long lines, the mysterious shortage of books, the unbelievably high prices leave most students bleary eyed and tapped-out even before classes begin. It's almost enough to make you question why you ever thought grad school was a good idea.

But a trio of online booksellers are easing the pain with their attempts to lure students away from the heady frustrations of shopping at the traditional brick-and-mortar bookstore. After tuition and housing, books are the largest expense students face; according to the National Association of College Stores, the average student shells out between $270 and $400 each term on required reading material. Experts say online booksellers are in a prime position to take advantage of the $5.3 billion textbook market, as most students are Internet-savvy and foster a general resentment toward the lack of competition on many college campuses.

Elmhurst, Ill.-based Follett Corp. launched efollett.com last January with a $10 million ad campaign urging students to "Get out of line." The site functions as an e-commerce portal for the 585 Follett Bookstores nationwide, including Chicago-area schools such as Northwestern and DePaul, posting up-to-date booklists and giving the students the option of picking up textbooks at their local bookstore or having the load shipped.

eFollett.com gets high marks for its "Compare and Save" feature, providing users with the prices of textbooks for other online retailers. Interestingly enough, this feature seems remarkably unbiased. "Gardner's Art Through the Ages" (10th Ed.) is listed at $77.33 at eFollett, but sells for $72.67 at competitor Varsitybooks.com. However, unlike Varsitybooks.com, eFollett offers "gently" used books. (A used copy of the "Gardner's" text sells for just $58.)

Here's where the company gets a less than average grade: The bookseller's best features are useless if your college bookstore is not one of the 585 Follett-affiliated stores.

Varsitybooks.com, based in Washington, D.C., was launched last year by two George Washington University law students. Recently, the online bookseller signed a marketing agreement with International Thomson Publishing's $6 billion educational publisher, which has ITP sales reps recommending VarsityBooks directly to instructors as an alternative textbook outlet for their students.

Varsitybooks.com gets a better than average grade for offering discounts of up to 40 percent on their selection of some 400,000 titles, and for offering a flat-rate shipping fee not influenced by the quantity of books ordered. A student may order "one, five or one hundred books," all for the same rate. However, with only seventy-five university-required booklists featured on the site, combined with the fact that it doesn't offer used books, VarsityBooks gets a big check mark in the "needs improvement" category.

BigWords.com's Website states, "We went to college. We remember how much finding your textbooks sucks." BigWords is a kitschy site that presents itself in a hip, cartoon-ish manner in an apparent attempt to appeal to the more carefree nature usually associated with college students. The site is peppered with random trivia questions like "Does Mr. Pink die at the end of 'Reservoir Dogs'?" and "What is the fastest marine animal on the planet?"

The online bookseller receives excellent scores for providing free shipping and for offering more than three million new and used books. The company, like VarsityBooks, also offers many of their titles at a 40 percent discount; best of all, BigWords gives students the option of renting books for 60 percent of the purchase price with no charge for return shipping. BigWords' scores plummet when you consider the fact that free shipping also means a slower return time on receiving merchandise'it can take between five to eight business days to receive an order. Also, some students may be turned off by a company that tries too hard to impress. BigWords' habit of using big words like "sucks," "cool" and "phat" may read as unprofessional to some students, especially those already leery of making purchases online.

The textbook market may not be as glamorous as other parts of the book trade industry, but it certainly is a competitive one. And the traditional campus bookstores, determined to maintain control over the marketplace, are launching Websites of their own: this year, the National Association of College Stores unveiled CourseWeb, a program designed to help bookstores build, maintain and manage their own e-commerce sites.


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