More companies throw their hats into Web bookstore ring

Last semester, textbook shopping took on a new dimension when a host of online competitors came on the scene to give the multibillion dollar industry a run for its money.

VarsityBooks.com, part of the increasingly popular online book industry, targeted colleges in the D.C. area for the first time last fall. Bookstore sites such as Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com also have joined the trend to target book purchasers.

Eric Kuhn, co-founder of VarsityBooks.com, said the $2.7 billion a year industry needed more competition.

Kuhn and partner Tim Levy founded their online company in 1997 to provide competition for college bookstores.

“We founded VarsityBooks so college students could avoid long bookstore lines and save money,” Kuhn said.

Kuhn said VarsityBooks is almost 40 percent cheaper than bookstores, and guarantees delivery within two to three days. He said he sees a bleak future for traditional bookstores.

“The move to online textbook buying is going to be just like the transformation from traditional banking to ATM usage,” Kuhn said. “Three years from now more than half of college texts will be purchased online.”

VarsityBooks, however, is not the only new source for textbooks on the World Wide Web. Several new companies, and one familiar face, have made waves in cyberspace and in the textbook market.

Follett College Stores, the company that owns the GW Bookstore and 585 others across the United States and Canada, now offers efollett.com, an online source for students to order books.

Newcomers BigWords.com, which launched its Web site in September 1998, and textbookzone.com also are vying for a piece of the $2.7 billion pie.

BigWords.com is the brainchild of 23-year-old Matt Johnson. Co-founder John Baten said the young staff at BigWords knew from experience the inconvenience and cost of buying books at school stores.

Baten said he sees the need for traditional bookstores in the future, but not for buying textbooks.

“The Internet is not really too much of a help if you need to go pick up some pens or a notebook for class,” Baten said. “But the advantages of buying textbooks online are enormous.”

Baten said he also thinks many of the people running Web stores are more in touch with students.

“Most of the people in charge here are just out of college,” Baten said. “We dance around all day listening to Fatboy Slim and just have a good time.”

Press secretary Terri Shank of efollett.com said the main strength of the service is the superior supply of books the company offers. Shank said it is the best stocked source for college textbooks.

While the online version of Follett stores does not offer a discount from typical textbook costs, students who attend a school with a Follett-owned bookstore can pick up books they order online at the campus store. Follett does not plan to phase out traditional stores; in fact, new stores are being added to the fleet daily, Shank said.

Kuhn said the emergence of efollett.com struck him as a bit ironic because he claims VarsityBooks’ representatives were removed from a location near GW’s campus at the request of GW Bookstore management early last semester.

A contract between the University and Follett forbids other textbook companies from advertising or selling on campus. Baten also said representatives from BigWords have had similar experiences.

“We’ve been kicked off our share of college campuses,” Baten said. “It’s amazing how much people will resist change, especially when it threatens them financially.”

“After so many years of being forced to use the campus bookstore to purchase textbooks, students now have a choice,” Kuhn said. “This is a great example of the Internet giving people more freedom.”

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