College textbook vendors are popping up in cyberspace just in time for the book-buying spree that comes like clockwork each semester.
Virtual bookstores like amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com are the better-known alternatives for students who want to avoid long lines at the GW Bookstore.
And VarsityBooks, a fledgling online company in Dupont Circle, is poised to taper at least part of this college cost, said co-founders Eric Kuhn and Tim Levy.
But GW Bookstore officials said online services might offer new textbooks at lower prices, but the campus bookstore offers more availability and convenience.
“People tend to focus a lot on price,” said Barbara Hoy, assistant director of the GW Bookstore. “There are other values involved in the bookstore.”
On VarsityBook’s Web site, a number of books for GW courses are not available. For example, the English section of the VarsityBooks Web site offers books for only English 9 and 10 classes. The University’s English department offers more than 60 other courses, for which the online service offers no texts. Another problem – optional books often are available but required books often are not.
GW Bookstore has set up its own online alternative – an online site that features services available at the physical store and a chance to reserve textbooks for pickup. But VarsityBooks’ Kuhn said his service is revolutionary because it offers discounted prices.
A new copy of the most recent edition of International Economics, the required textbook for Economics 181, costs students $78.00 at the campus bookstore. At the VarsityBooks site, the new text is $66.30 plus a $4.95 flat-rate shipping and handling charge.
Calculus 20 students save about $15 if they order the course’s required text on VarsityBooks. Biology 107 students would pay $84.00 at the GW Bookstore and $63 at the VarsityBooks site.
“The books were so much cheaper (at VarsityBooks),” said sophomore Shafkat Anwar.
Anwar said he saved $30 on two books at the VarsityBooks site. He said he turned to the online service because the GW Bookstore did not have used copies of the books he needs for his classes this fall.
And he said he will surf the Web site for his books but will head to the GW Bookstore first for the cheaper used copies.
Students should definitely consider the amount they can save buying used books at the campus bookstore, said David Peterson, GW Bookstore director.
A new Economics 11 textbook from VarsityBooks costs $57.40, but a used copy at the GW bookstore saves students $13.
VarsityBooks staffers said they understand students will buy books from the campus bookstore if they can get a better price.
“We don’t want to put the bookstore out of business,” Kuhn said.
Levy and Kuhn said they can relate to the frustration students feel when they pay high prices for their textbooks.
As students at GW Law School a few years ago, the pair said they often looked for books at off-campus bookstores to avoid paying what they considered exorbitant prices at the GW Bookstore.
“I used to go to Washington Books just because it was $1 or $2 cheaper,” Levy said.
Now they want to be the cost-friendly option.
“We want to offer students an alternative and cheaper source because they are already paying so much,” Levy said. “We are geared to help students, not just to sell books.”
The VarsityBooks staff said it hopes student agitation about high bookstore prices will lead students to turn to its virtual store for books at 15 percent to 40 percent off the retail price.
“We hope most students will take advantage of our discounted prices,” Kuhn said.
But price may not be the only factor determining where students buy books.
Selling textbooks is multi-faceted and staff at the GW Bookstore said its experience in the business means students get the highest level of service.
“The key is knowing your market,” Hoy said. “We know the process.”
One-stop shopping at the campus bookstore for course material, books, study guides, pens, pencils and other supplies gives the campus bookstore an unmatched edge over online vendors who may only market course material, Hoy said.
Availability is still an issue at VarsityBooks. Levy and Kuhn said the Web site only includes books stocked in their warehouse, enabling the company to deliver books within two days of the online purchase.
Levy said the service realizes students need books immediately and it will continue its efforts to complete its inventory by the time students need books.
But GW Bookstore staffers say students will go where textbooks are available in time for the beginning of classes.
“Immediacy is important,” Hoy said.
Peterson and Hoy said two days is a long time in a student’s life. Students buy books from the campus bookstore on the way to their first class, Peterson said.
And Peterson cited another benefit only the campus bookstore can provide – updated information. Professors, courses and required course material fluctuate until the first day of class, he said, and because the bookstore holds exclusive rights to course book lists, it offers the most up-to-date information.
With the most current course requests available, the bookstore can stack the shelves with required material most quickly, he said.
But when the campus store posts book lists on its Web site, it loses its proprietary rights.
Jerry Buchs, director of public relations at the National Association of College Stores, said losing the rights to the information hurts college bookstores because the lists often require extensive technological resources, time and labor.
“After its online, it’s out of our hands,” Peterson said.
The availability of the lists online allows virtual vendors to tap book lists almost effortlessly.
VarsityBooks, however, also has found another method to collect book lists. The company contacted professors individually – with the help of six unpaid interns – to compile its own list for the five universities it initially serves: GW, Georgetown and George Mason universities, and the universities of Virginia and Maryland, Kuhn and Levy said.
Professors have been highly cooperative because “they want their students to learn and save money and we help them do that,” Kuhn said.
VarsityBooks employees were on campus last week to advertise their service, handing out key chains, T-shirts, pens and posters.
But Peterson and Hoy seem unfazed by competing online companies because they said they believe the campus bookstore offers the most convenience.
“There is always competition out there,” Hoy said. “Everything has yet to be proven.”
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