The king of big-box, mass-market retailing has targeted a small, elite and seemingly resistant market. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has ventured into the rocky world of online college textbook sales.
Students starting classes can go to walmart.com and order all the cut-rate basics of college life: shower curtains, sheets, a mini-refrigerator and a crisp new copy of “An Introduction to Modern Stellar Astrophysics.
Can one-stop college shopping earn an A? For decades, students have complained about the price of textbooks and assumed that the college bookstore was exploiting them as trapped consumers. Now, a giant retailer that has clout with suppliers and a reputation for everyday low prices might make the $7 billion business of selling college textbooks seem ripe for the picking.
But this is academia, where the rules of the regular world don’t often apply. Wal-Mart is trying to entice students like Kathy Sander, 17, a Philadelphia resident who stopped at La Salle University’s bookstore recently.
Sander had just spent $295.90, including $125 on a single book for her introductory biology course. “My bank account was totally tapped out after that,” she said. “These textbooks are way too much money. I had no idea!”
In the next breath, Sander said she would rather buy at the bookstore than online.
“I was here on campus already, so it was easier,” she said. “I’ll have the books for Monday, when classes start. And I don’t have to pay shipping.”
Despite their resentment of prices, students still seem to value convenience over saving a few bucks.
“It’s intriguing. Students go online for everything, but not for purchases related to education,” said Laura Nakoneczny, spokeswoman for the National Association of College Stores.
Wal-Mart, which began its online textbook sales last year, knows it has to compete with the convenience of a campus store. But Wal-Mart spokeswoman Cynthia Lin said it had one thing going for it that some others in the business did not: A wide array of goods to sell, not just textbooks. If Wal-Mart woos the college crowd, it gets more potential customers for all its products.
She said customers who were pleased with Wal-Mart’s lower prices on other kinds of books urged the company to sell textbooks as well.
During the Internet boom of the late 1990s, online bookseller start-ups exploded onto the scene, trying to cash in.
They came in a wave, starting in 1998, with BigBooks.com,
VarsityBooks.com and eCampus.com, not to mention the large brick-and-mortar retailers such as Barnes ‘ Noble, and Follett, which began running campus stores as well as selling books on the Internet.
The trade association feared that within a few years, online sales would represent a third of the market.
It never happened. BigBooks was a big bust and is now out of business. ECampus.com, still extant, filed for bankruptcy. And the trade association now estimates that online textbook sales make up only 7 percent of the market.
But the flurry of online competition did prod campus stores to reassess their service. Nearly all campus bookstores, even the independents, now have Web sites to take orders.
Some large university stores even deliver to dorm rooms. At Villanova and several other universities, there is a 5 percent discount if students pay by a debit-card system run by the university.
Kathleen Grace, director of Swarthmore College’s independent bookstore, welcomed the competition.
“The students think we make a lot off these books, but now they can see our prices are often the same and sometimes even less,” Grace said.
So why are textbooks so expensive?
A big reason is that they come with pricey color photographs and graphics, and are printed in small runs with fewer books to spread the cost.
Where campus bookstores really make their money is selling clothing and novelty items emblazoned with the school name.
A random survey of prices on textbooks required for courses this fall shows that walmart.com consistently undercuts online and on-campus competition. But, unlike the campus stores, walmart.com does not offer used books, which provide major savings for students.
Wal-Mart can keep prices lower on other products because it can buy in volume. But the textbook industry is different. Volume discounts from publishers have never been an industry practice.