Sunday, August 19, 2001

Wal-Mart now a player in online textbook sales




By Bill Wolfe
The Courier-Journal

        Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, is using its Web site to enter a new market — textbook sales.

        Walmart.com began selling textbooks last month, and while the company won't give out specific results, “we're getting really great feedback,” spokeswoman Cynthia Lin said. The textbook sales section of Walmart.com is “now one of the more popular destinations on our site.”

        While Wal-Mart stores don't carry textbooks, online sales provide “unlimited shelf space” with an inventory of 300,000 titles, Lin said.

        Why the move into textbooks? Lin described it as an effort to meet customer needs, but college supplies are also big business in America. According to the National Association of College Stores, a trade group in Oberlin, Ohio, the average college student spends $501 a year on textbooks and course materials.

        Other textbook sellers are watching Wal-Mart, but don't express alarm over the new competitor.

        Lexington, Ky.'s ecampus.com, reconstituted after the bankruptcy of its previous owner, former Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, has 600,000 customers, said its president, Matt Montgomery. He said Wal-Mart's entry into the business will simply encourage more students to shop online, and that will benefit all online sellers.

        “For textbooks, it's the absolutely best way to buy a book,” Montgomery said, pointing to prices lower than typical campus bookstores and the convenience of shopping by computer.

        Theresa Pedone, public relations coordinator for the National Association of College Stores, said online sales remain a small part of the overall textbook market, a situation the association thinks is unlikely to change soon.

        According to a survey it conducted last year, 7 percent of college students bought textbooks primarily from online stores, Pedone said.

        On-campus stores make it easy to get the exact titles that college professors require, and they allow students to buy and sell used books — something not available at all online sites. Walmart.com, for example, sells only new books, and doesn't buy them back. Ecampus.com does both, Mr. Montgomery said.

        Wal-Mart ledges to make returns easy with its “bricks and clicks” approach. Students can return books — and avoid shipping charges — by taking them to a Wal-Mart store.

        Other online textbook sellers include companies such as Barnes & Noble at www.textbooks.com, Varsity Group at www.VarsityBooks.com and Big Words Inc. at www.bigwords.com.

       



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