Manassas Journal Messenger | Finding books at a bargain has benefit, cost

At eBay-hosted, the company’s name is a humble understatement.

The online bookseller, and scores of similar Internet book wholesalers, have built a quiet groundswell among frugal college students seeking ways to stretch their dollars. These services provide college textbooks at pennies on the dollar sometimes of the cost at on-campus bookstores. The migration toward discount online booksellers has caught the attention of college bookstores.

“What I can say is that over the last few years we have seen the volume of our sales slowly decreasing,” said Paul Jez, associate vice president and treasurer at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

Jez has watched a steady increase in enrollment, as well as an increase in the cost of textbooks. Few textbooks cost less than $100, he said. Because of this, he estimates that profits at campus bookstores should have jumped at least 10 percent, “but instead, we’re seeing flat sales.”

With just a bit of comparison shopping, it’s easy to see why. A quick search of three common freshman textbooks all for required courses at VCU reveals that lists all three texts at a third to a quarter of the prices at the VCU bookstore.

$110.70 or $4.66?

One text, Excursions in Modern Mathematics, is $110.70 new at the college bookstore, but available online for as little as $4.66 for a used copy. One “new” copy of the text is listed online at $20, just about 18 percent of the retail price.

“I think we have to be concerned about it,” Jez said.

To meet the challenge, campus bookstores are turning to used textbooks, a market long dominated by private booksellers such as the Virginia Book Company. The store, located near the VCU campus, has been owned and operated by Ernest Mooney for 20 years.

“We opened to provide cheaper used textbooks to students,” said Mooney, who estimates his books cost 25 percent to 30 percent less than new books. “We must be doing something right,” said Mooney, who calls business healthy despite online competition.

There’s a downside

Though deep discounts certainly are a lure, both Mooney and Jez warn of a very real downside to online ordering.

Among these is the potential lag time between ordering and receiving the textbooks. The first day of class waits for no one certainly not

And when order mistakes happen, correcting them can take weeks valuable time during a limited college semester.

Mooney recounts a horror story from one student who ordered the right book and received it on time but in its Chinese translation.

Another pitfall is that many online copies and used copies as well don’t come with support material. Many publishers seeking to combat used or online sales provide one-time-use computer software with texts that renders the book obsolete after its first owner, Jez said.

“If you don’t have [support software], quite frankly you can’t take the class because you can’t participate,” Mooney said.

Pitfalls or not, Jez and Mooney see Internet rivals as here to stay.

Online competition also is making Mooney rethink his own business. “Why stand around and lick your wounds while somebody is cutting into your business? If you can’t lick them, join them.”

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