Founded in 1882, the esteemed Harvard Cooperative Society—“the Coop” for short—has been a fixture of scholarly life here for almost 130 years. As its name suggests, the Coop began as a business jointly owned by all those who paid the $1 membership fee. Of course, the Coop’s business model has changed substantially since then—it no longer grants those who pay the membership fee ownership in the company. Remarkably, however, it maintains the mission of “serv[ing] the Harvard and MIT communities as a cooperative by providing quality products and services.”
As is well known, the price of books at the Coop has become prohibitive for more and more students each year, and ever-increasing droves are turning to low-cost providers such Amazon.com for course materials. Either the Coop must find a way to reclaim its mission by providing books at prices competitive with other providers, or it must dispel the widespread myth that it remains a genuinely cooperative business.
After all, to be a “cooperative” means something specific, that those who own the business are those who work there or patronize it. Today’s Coop, however, does not reflect this definition at all. The membership one buys for $1 is, in reality, a customer loyalty program, which promises an eight to ten percent rebate for all purchases made there. Unfortunately, many students still operate under the assumption that to pay the $1 fee is to be a joint owner of the Coop, which is simply not the case.
The particular business model of the Coop is especially relevant because many students are willing to pay the extra cost of a book there because the establishment is seen as beholden to them. If, however, one realizes that the Coop is no more obligated to its “members” than is Amazon.com, much of the perceived incentive to pay its high prices ceases to exist.
Currently, some books, like Professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s “Principles of Economics” are offered for almost $100 less on Amazon.com than they are at the Coop. Certainly, the Coop has to pay expensive overhead costs that online retailers simply don’t have to consider, and we understand that the circumstances are different. That said, if the business’s aim is truly to be “cooperative” with students—as its mission statement states—it must consider alternative methods to offer competitively priced books. To be fair, the Coop has tried implementing some measures this year to do just that—the option to rent textbooks, for instance, allows students to pay less for a book they can keep and use for a semester. But this is hardly enough, and the “cooperative” should seriously consider finding more ways to remain true to its mission.
Furthermore, if the Coop can’t keep up with its competitors, the College should reconsider its special relationship with the bookseller, which currently allows the Coop to sell required course books all in one place. Such a practice only allows the Coop to charge comparatively high prices, since students often resort to the convenience of one-stop shopping as opposed to book-hunting on Amazon.com. And if the costs of one-stop shopping at the Coop weren’t clear before, consider the recent incident just last week of the Coop overcharging by $54.20 for the “American Constitutional Law” textbook. Although customers were promised refunds, the mishap only further confirms that Coop doesn’t seem all that concerned with keeping students’ best interests at heart.
As the recent bankruptcy of Borders Group, Inc. demonstrates, it’s difficult to succeed as a bricks-and-mortar book retailer these days. Nevertheless, the Coop—as long as it continues considers itself a “cooperative”—is responsible for upholding its mission of providing affordable, quality goods and services to the Harvard (and MIT) community.
As students, we have no obligation to patronize the Coop whatsoever, and neither does the College have an obligation to give it a competitive advantage through the special relationship that continues to exist between the two. Whether it be through an increasing online presence or some other method, we urge the Coop to bring down its prices so it can become the trustworthy companion of the Harvard Undergraduate once more