Undergrads Provide Book-Buying Alternative

flyingchicken.com web site offers price comparison

Three members of the class of '01 have decided to "fly the Coop"--and help their classmates do so in the process.

Their new Web site, http://flyingchickens.com, premiered last Thursday and is already logging orders.

The brainchild of three friends, the site offers comparisons of textbook prices for Harvard College courses from five different online bookstores.

Book price comparison sites abound, but this is the first one designed especially for Harvard undergraduates, say its founders, Aviva A. Geiger '01, Johann M. Schleier-Smith '01 and Greg Y. Tseng '01.

"It just makes life much more convenient," Geiger said. "It's such a pain to go to the Coop, write down the numbers, make sure you get all the right editions and everything."

Enter the site's address into your browser, and you'll find a page enticing you in large red letters to "Save up to 40%" from Coop prices, which are usually the same as list prices.

The pulldown list of classes includes every class offered this semester at the College that had an enrollment of 30 or more students the last time it was offered--in general, the courses that tend to require a visit to the Coop for books.

Click on a class, and the site pulls up a list of required titles sold at the Coop.

A click on a book title yields five prices--from Amazon.com, Bigwords.com, Booksamillion.com, Fatbrain.com and Varsitybooks.com--with the lowest price highlighted in red.

Site users may then order their books through the individual vendors, though flyingchickens.com guides them through the process.

When students purchase books through flyingchickens.com, 5 percent of the price paid goes to its three founders, but so far they're seeing no profits. The group funneled money into overhead costs this summer, including expenses for advertising, Web hosting and domain registration.

"Right now we're focused on breaking even," Schleier-Smith said.

The idea for the site was born last February, when Schleier-Smith and Tseng found they'd both done some book shopping online, and bought the same textbook at Bigwords.com, for some $40 less than the Coop price.

"That's what made us realize that the Coop was ripping us off," Tseng said. "$40 off of a book is pretty hard to resist."

The discounts offered by online booksellers have hurt the Coop, but the store has stepped up its efforts to shorten checkout lines and to procure more used books, Coop General Manager David Sullivan said in April.

Sullivan stressed that the Coop's profits from textbooks are meager at best, calling the textbook section merely "a service" to students.

The advent of online booksellers in recent years is what has made the new Web site possible, Schleier-Smith said.

In years past, he says, there weren't alternatives to the Coop.

Today, he said, with online booksellers cropping up left and right, lower prices are out there, but can take time to find.

Flyingchickens.com picked the five sites that consistently had the best prices, large selections and were able to ship quickly.

After putting in considerable man-hours over the summer establishing the site, the three friends organized an advertising campaign last week, to plaster posters across the campus and drop flyers in door boxes.

And the campaign seems to be working. As of early yesterday morning, the site had logged around 400 hits in its first four days, said Schleier-Smith and Tseng.

"That was sort of surprising to us, since classes hadn't started yet," Tseng said.

The site's catchy pun of a name, originally Geiger's idea, has no doubt drawn many would-be buyers.

"I thought it was a silly name, so I decided to look," Lindsey E. Gulden '00 said.

She did, and though she hasn't purchased anything yet, Gulden said she will use the site soon.

"I think it's a fabulous idea," she said of the site. "It saves a lot of time."

One feature not offered on the site is a listing of Coop prices for the books--a gap that some users have noticed.

"It would be nice to see the Coop's prices just to know how much we're saving," Marissa Ocegueda '00 said.

The site's founders say they are considering all suggestions received via the site's feedback e-mail address and will take them into account for next semester.

Possible upcoming changes to the site include adding more online vendors to the price comparisons and branching out to other schools, such as MIT, the founders said.