Online Allure

Can the Coop and Online Booksellers Co-exist in a Crowded Marketplace?

As students turn increasingly towards online book vendors for their textbook needs, the MIT Coop recently announced that it is striking back.

By launching a new program of price matching two weeks ago, the MIT Coop has given students a new incentive to buy their books on campus.

According to Kelli R. Hendricks, a customer service representative at the MIT Coop, there are certain limitations on the procedure. Students must present a printout from an online vendor that includes the identical ISBN number for the book, the price, the availability and a guarantee that it will ship within 48 hours.

The MIT Coop will then sell the book at the reduced price--or even offer a rebate for an already-purchased book.

While the Harvard Coop has no plans to offer a similar program, employees say recent improvements to selling techniques will ensure the store remains competitive.

What's Out There

Some students have uncovered large savings over Coop prices when shopping online. Sites such as Amazon.com, Bigwords.com and VarsityBooks.com offer textbooks at prices that are often lower than those at the Coop.

John C. Heywood '00, for example, saved almost $50 by buying his accounting textbook from Bigwords.com.

Nina E. Glass '03, however, was less lucky with Bigwords.com. She ordered a book from them, but received the book on tape instead.

"They're not as good as Amazon because they don't give you a picture of the book," Glass wrote in an e-mail message.

Glass' past experience, however, has not discouraged her from shopping with Bigwords.com again. "I got over it, and now I really like using them, because it's certainly cheaper than buying books from the Coop," she wrote.

There are also a growing number of websites that search book vendors for user selections and return a list of the best prices available. Such sites, which include Collegebeans.com and Limespot.com, receive a percentage of sales revenue for each book sold through their site.

Even the Undergraduate Council has entered into the online book vending arena. Its site, UC Books, searches a database for the lowest book prices based on a student's course selections.

Land of Milk and Honey?

While the Internet is famous for making millionaires overnight, the online book market has not shown the same profitability that other areas of the Internet have.

Gershoni at VarsityBooks.com admits that the company is still losing money, and none of the other off-campus booksellers would answer questions about total sales during the beginning of this semester.

And while many titles are offered at a considerable discount on search sites and online vendors, students are not guaranteed to save when they buy over the Internet.

Students taking Computer Science 124, for example, would receive the following message from UC Books: "Our recommendation: You save -5.85%. You pay $71.45, but the list price you would have paid is $67.50."

Customer service at some of these sites is also called into question by students who tell stories of paying for books that were delivered weeks late.

David C. Castle '03, for example, ordered several books from Bigwords.com, but was not informed that books he had ordered were not in stock.

Of the ones that did arrive, "many books still took what I would call an inexcusably long period of time," Castle wrote in an e-mail message.

More Coop

At the MIT Coop, the response to the new competition seems to be going well. When asked if students were using the new price-matching service, Hendricks answered with energetic assent.

"I just did five in a row," she said.

Because of overhead costs, physical bookstores have a hard time competing with online prices. But the MIT Coop is finding that this new program is probably worth it.

"We are not necessarily losing money because we are bringing in more business," Hendricks said. "Instead of online people getting business, we are."

The Harvard Coop, however, does not currently have plans to follow suit. According to J. David Sullivan, general manager of the Harvard Coop, the Harvard Square branch currently has no plans to offer a system like that at MIT.

The Coop has not ignored the new competition--it now offers students the option of buying books online at www.thecoop.com. The prices, however, are the same as in the physical bookstore, with a shipping charge added on.

The Coop has also begun to recognize the lower prices of its competition by offering more used books.

"We've been emphasizing used books," says Coop President Jeremiah P. Murphy '73. "Price is always an issue for students, so we've been trying to bulk up the number of [used] titles we can offer students."

Murphy claims that the Coop still has several advantages over online book vendors--for example, its return policy, which allows students to return books for a full refund by March 1.

Returning books to most online vendors, while allowed, requires mailing the item back--which can protract the process and makes refunds less reliable.

Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis '68 also praised the Coop's selection over online book sellers.

"The Coop will order *every* course book for *every* course at Harvard," Lewis wrote in an e-mail message. "Some 200-level course in advanced Tibetan needs five copies of an obscure paperback published in Katmandu, the Coop will order them--and absorb all the risks and costs of returns, short sales, faculty anger when 7 copies are actually needed."

On the other hand, Limespot.com--which allows students to search multiple vendors for the best prices--admits that its search engine is limited by the books that its vendors offer.

Liang Weng, chief technical officer of Limespot.com, says the company has plans to set up a site location where rare books would be more accessible, but that he could offer no specifics as to how they plan to do so.

However, some online sites, such as VarsityBooks.com, claim that they can match that service.

"We carry over 350,000 titles of textbooks and trade books. Because of our extensive inventory we most likely have the rare books that students need," writes Jodi Gershoni, communications director at VarsityBooks.com, in an e-mail message.

Lewis, however, expressed skepticism over such claims.

"I don't think any other bookstore has ever covered the course catalog looking for book orders from every course," he wrote.

UC Books is an example of a book search engine with limited offerings. Students can find the best prices online for courses in the Core and several select departments, but required texts for courses outside these departments are not included in the site's database.

For instance, five books for the core class Foreign Cultures 78: Culture-Building and the Emergence of Modern Scandinavia, were not available at any of the ten online vendors that the Undergraduate Council site searches. The program offered the following advice: "The following books are not available within 4 weeks at any of the booksellers you searched, so you may want to just get them at the Coop."

Advertising Wars

Another advantage the Coop has over its competition is the ability to advertise on campus. While the rule is rarely enforced, University policy dictates that outside companies cannot advertise on campus without permission from Harvard's administration.

Violations of this rule have been rampant over the past few weeks, as online booksellers poster on campus and hire students to distribute information in front of the Science Center.

While most companies say they require their student employees to abide by school policies, in practice, this requirement is rarely fulfilled.

According to Gershoni, "The first rule [for our student marketing representatives] is that the reps obtain a copy of the school's marketing rules before they begin their marketing activities."

Alexander J. Leary '01, lead marketing representative for VarsityBooks.com on campus, acknowledged the stringency of the policies, but says that such policies are not practical given the competition for students' dollars.

"Their policy isn't really a policy that is upheld," Leary said. "I just went along with the way other people market here."

Bigwords.com has the same advertising policy as VarsityBooks.com.

"[Student representatives] check and follow [school] guidelines, but we work with the honor system" explains Iesa Figueroa, manager of marketing communications for Bigwords.com. "We do pass out our stuff in a very guerilla manner."

It seems to have paid off. According to Figueroa, Harvard is among the top five users of the Bigwords site.

For student-run companies University policy has been a more difficult obstacle.

"School rules have definitely been a huge limitation for us," writes Matthew C. Ebbel '01, co-founder of Collegebeans.com, in an e-mail message.

Collegebeans.com is a web site for college students, featuring a search engine for books and a used book marketplace.

"Valuing our Harvard diplomas more than the money we might make from this site, we have been very careful to follow all policies," Ebbel wrote.