Armed with her class list for the upcoming semester, graduate student Lindsay Hendricks always treks first to the campus bookstore at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. But if they don’t have what she’s looking for, Hendricks’ next stop is her computer.

There are great deals to be had searching for college textbooks over the internet, Hendricks said. She got one textbook, How to Think Straight About Psychology, which normally costs about $40 for just $5–used–through Amazon.com.

“In graduate college, we’re all about cheap books,” said the 26-year-old Hendricks.

She’s not alone. With textbook prices increasing–by more than 60 percent in the past decade alone, according to one report–students are more frequently turning to the internet to look for deals.

“It’s the wave of the future,” said Al Greco, a Fordham University marketing professor who follows trends in the college textbook industry for the Book Industry Study Group. And it’s a trend that college bookstores will have to answer if they expect to remain in business.

Sales of textbooks over the internet are growing because students have figured out they can save as much as half of the book’s cost by shopping around in cyberspace, Greco said.

Traditional book sellers so far are shrugging off the competition.

The sale of textbooks over the internet is more of an annoyance than anything else, said Frank Condello, director of marketing for the Nebraska Book Co., which operates 112 college bookstores and sells to 3,000 bookstores nationwide.

“It’s something we have to deal with because it’s there,” he said. “As to whether or not it’s going to drive us out of business, no way.”

The internet is being used by some students to buy books, but the biggest competition college textbook sellers face are other stores in the same town and not web sites, Condello said.

It appears that a minority of students are buying books over the internet for now. But some studies show the number of students doing so is increasing.

About 14 percent of college students buy textbooks online, according to a 2003 survey done by the National Association of College Stores (NACS) in Oberlin, Ohio, a trade group representing 3,000 retailers. That was up from just 6 percent in 1999.

A 2004 study done by the California Student Public Interest Research Group found that 86 percent of students have considered buying or selling books at an online book swap, but only 14 percent had done so.

Greco puts the percentage at about 19 percent, but says as students search for the cheapest used book they will increasingly look toward the internet. College bookstores of the future likely will not have printed textbook sales as a significant part of their business, he said.

Internet sales are an issue with college bookstores, but it’s not a big concern yet, said Jennifer Libertowski, a spokeswoman for the trade group.

“It is definitely on their radar,” she said.

Traditional bookstores are competing by running their own web sites where students can order books and then pick them up, or organizing online swap meets where students can buy and sell books, Libertowski said.

The best way for campus stores to compete, however, is to offer a large number of affordable used books, she said.

The bottom line for many students, no matter where they buy their books, is price.

Kui Xie, a 28-year-old graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, said he buys about half of his textbooks online in any given semester.

“The main reason is it’s cheaper,” Xie said. “I’d rather buy books from the bookstore if the prices are close.”

Xie said sometimes he will buy the book at the campus bookstore and then return it if he finds it cheaper online. He spends between $200 and $300 a semester on books for three classes.

A report released in February by the California Public Interest Research Group, called “Ripoff 101,” found the average student will spend nearly $900 each year purchasing textbooks–and the prices are increasing at more than four times the rate of inflation.

The wholesale prices charged by textbook publishers have jumped 62 percent since 1994, but the prices charged for general books went up just 19 percent, the report found.

There are drawbacks to relying on the internet to buy books, Hendricks said. For one, she said it took two to three weeks for one book she ordered to arrive. The wait requires planning ahead, she said.

Traditional booksellers are quick to point out other drawbacks to buying over the internet. Condello said students take the risk of getting the wrong editions, buying discontinued books they won’t be able to resell, and not receiving supplemental materials–including workbooks and CDs–that normally come with the books.

While those concerns are legitimate, students are so focused on finding the best price they don’t care, Greco said.

“I don’t think they can scare people away from buying over the internet,” he said.

Most students prefer their local bookstore because of the convenience, said NACS’ Libertowski.

Students are limited to whatever brick-and-mortar bookstore is on their campus, but the options are abundant in cyberspace. Leading sites include Amazon.com, ebooks.com, VarsityBooks.com, and even eBay, where a recent search for “textbook” came up with 1,946 items for sale.

Prices ranged from a high of $151 to a low of just 1 cent.

Links:

Nebraska Book Co.
http://www.nebook.com

CALPIRG
http://www.pirg.org/calpirg

NACS
http://www.nacs.org