Virtual Alternative Once Bound to the College Bookstore, Students Can Now Stock Up on the 'Net

Article excerpt

In a campus bookstore of Florida Community College at Jacksonville, Dianne Tribble had no trouble finding an algebra textbook for her daughter.

She had trouble accepting the $75 price.

"I'm leaving that book right on the shelf," she said. "It's time to shop around."

Two years ago, her options would have been limited to the used-book selections at the campus bookstore, or a single competitor off-campus.

But the Internet rapidly is transforming an aspect of college life that most alumni remember without sentimentality: The monopoly of the college bookstore.

For years, universities have offered students limited competition -- usually a campus store and a few competitors offcampus. But this year, a host of Web-based booksellers are competing aggressively for the $3 billion spent annually by students on books, selling themselves as the cheaper, noline alternative to the bookstore.

The spending power of students and their comfort with computerized shopping have encouraged analysts to predict this could be the breakout year for online textbook sales.

Tribble, who was shopping at FCCJ for her freshman daughter, said she last stepped inside a college bookstore as a student herself, 15 years ago. She was unfamiliar with online purchases and planned to next try an off-campus store.

Another browser, student Winifred Floyd, said she had heard about ordering books online through a friend but has not tried it herself.

Their experiences are typical.

Only 5 percent of college students made textbook purchases via computer last year, according to a recent survey by Student Monitor Inc., a New Jersey-based marketing firm. These students accounted for just 1 percent of the textbook sales.

But the numbers are expected to jump dramatically this year, the first in which online operators heavily advertise their services, Student Monitor spokesman Eric Weil said.

"We think the reason the incidence was so low was [students] didn't know they could," Weil said.

Surveys that track student spending indicate as many as half of all college students could end up ordering a textbook through the Internet by year's end, he said.

Floyd, a 28-year-old music major, said she expects to do some online comparison shopping. She plans to bypass the bookstore if she can gain even a slight advantage.

"I'm paying my way through college," she said. "Every bit helps."

MORTAR AND MOUSE

The virtual marketplace has attracted Internet-only businesses, some of them begun by recent college graduates, as well as the nation's largest booksellers.

Follett and Barnes and Noble, the largest operators of campus bookstores, both have spin-off Web sites that emphasize convenience. And they are heavily marketing these services.

Follett, which operates the FCCJ campus bookstores, announced this week it will spend $10 million this year to advertise its online site, efollett.com.

Wallace's College Book Co. has an outlet through ecampus.com. And Barnes and Noble, which runs the bookstore at the University of North Florida, has an online presence through two sites: barnesandnoble.com and textbooks.com.

The sites feature a variety of delivery options, have incentives including cash-credits for purchases and emphasize a deep reserve of books.

"We're taking the approach that we have the books and we're making them readily available," Follett spokesman Cliff Ewert said.

In January, Follett put all of its 600 campus bookstores online.

The shift makes sense, said Ewert, citing studies that show college students spend about seven hours a week online. "It's part of their culture," he said.

It is a culture that has created the virtual bookstore.

The online-only businesses -- including varsitybooks.com, bigwords.com, and the soon-tobe-activated theuzone. …