Textbooks: The Competition for Your Business Heats Up

Last Updated Aug 23, 2010 9:21 AM EDT

I've seen some bad press releases, but this one takes the cake. Earlier in the week, the National Association of College Stores (NACS), an organization that represents 3,000 collegiate retailers, warned students against purchasing textbooks online or they could risk becoming a victim of identity theft.
Wow! I realize the book business is competitive these days, but I had no idea campus bookstores were under so much pressure. How else can you explain the NACS stooping so low as to try and frighten cash-strapped families into paying top dollar for course materials? What's their next desperate claim going to be, that online purchases kill baby seals?

It's not entirely surprising that the NACS would try to do something to keep students from flocking to the online competition. After all, these websites have gotten incredible press for the past month. And if you read any of the stories in publications like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, or MSNBC, you'd feel like an idiot paying full price for your textbooks when you could easily buy much cheaper ones elsewhere. (Just in case you're wondering, the average student pays between $700 and $1,000 for books each year.)

How much can students save by bypassing the campus bookstore? Online retailers claim their rentals can save students as much as 50% versus a new book. And while collegiate stores do sell used options and some are even starting to rent books, families will likely do better shopping around online.

So what are your options? If you're looking to rent, consider websites like Chegg or BookRenter. If you want to download a digital version, you can do so through Coursesmart.com. If you'd rather purchase a used book, check out Barnes & Noble or Amazon. And if families are unsure where they can get the best deal, book.ly and BIGWORDS do the comparison shopping for you. No wonder the NACS is concerned no one is going to buy its members' merchandise this Fall.

Still, threatening identity theft feels like the organization is grasping at straws. While it's true that the majority of these sorts of crimes do occur online, purchasing textbooks isn't any riskier than, say, shopping at Amazon.com or Abercrombie & Fitch, something web-savvy college students do all the time. They just need to use some common sense to protect their personal information.

I also don't think students will entirely abandon their college bookstore. There will always be that professor who requires his pupils read some esoteric book that even Barnes & Noble doesn't stock. Or, there will be the kid that transfers into a lecture at the last minute and doesn't have time to wait for shipping.

And let's not forget my favorite reason for shopping at my college's bookstore back when I was a young co-ed: I wanted school memorabilia. By the end of my four years I had countless USC t-shirts, sweatshirts and coffee mugs.

In fact, all this talk of school bookstores is making me want to buy a university logo onesie for my 10-month-old. But in order to do so, I'd have to make that purchase online. Do I risk identity theft to do it? Not to worry, the NACS assures the public that the only safe way to shop over the Internet is to go to a campus bookstore's website.

Do you or your kids plan to buy to buy your textbooks online? Or will you go for the convenience of shopping on campus?

Politiks image by Adam NFK Smith, courtesy of CC 2.0.
Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal. Financial Guidebook for New Parents.
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  • Stacey Bradford

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