Back to School: Textbooks for Sale

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The one part of back-to-school shopping that college students dislike has indeed become a growing market for many retailers, both on and offline.  And why not? According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17.9 million students will be attending college this year. If the average spending on textbooks from 2005-2006 was $801 to $904 per student per year (it's probably risen since then), then clearly this is a lucrative market.

Not too long ago, the only place to buy textbooks was from the college bookstore. I used to purchase new and used books from two bookstores at the University of Virginia. It was convenient, since I could return books if I changed classes, but it was also very expensive. Sometimes a single book would cost well more than $100 (thank you, statistical analysis). Ouch.

Not surprisingly, plenty of e-commerce stores were lining their websites with textbooks at cheaper prices. It makes sense. Every college student is familiar with the Internet and has to purchase textbooks, so why not save a few dollars and buy textbooks cheaper online?  

Today, students can shop for these backpack accessories from many places online. Type in "textbook" at Google.com, and Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) , Barnes & Noble (NYSE: BKS  ) , and eBay's (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) Half.com will show up on the front page as search results and sponsored links. (Borders (NYSE: BGP  ) , did you fall asleep there?) Even Facebook has entered the textbook market; its textbook store is located within the recently launched marketplace. And if you can't find the books you're looking for on Facebook, it links you to Amazon.

While textbooks aren't new -- in fact, I'm sure college students wish the market for textbooks would disappear altogether -- the market is growing and consistent. Over time, more cost-conscious students will migrate online -- even if it's just to compare costs initially. Once they realize that they could save hundreds a year, they'll return.

Part of the problem is that companies aren't doing enough to capture the student market. If students are shopping for textbooks, then companies should bundle in school supplies and offer discounts for future purchases, or shipping promotions (like Amazon's free two-day shipping for orders of more than $200). Companies need to create sticky websites geared to this group to not only build their brand but encourage future sales -- both academic and non-academic. 

Companies like Barnes & Noble aren't necessarily resting on their textbooks, either. They're driving traffic and sales by ramping up selection and advertising on search websites and through email promotions, like the one I received from Half.com, although I've never shopped there myself. 

So whether you're shopping for new investments or shopping for books, keep an eye out for companies capitalizing on college trends and needs such as textbooks. In a space that battles to keep sites relevant, user-friendly, and sticky, it's always good to see some love from the college crowd.


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