Buying Textbooks: A Feasibility Study for UC Davis Students (May 30, 2000)

Heather Thompson

Writer’s comment: I jumped to the theme of books and the Internet when I was asked to write a feasibility study for my English 104A (Business Reports & Technical Communication) class. Buying textbooks online was a topic I had already dealt with broadly, in an Aggiecolumn, and intimately each quarter, as I continued buying my books at the Bookstore while looking for a foolproof way to get them online. I loved having an excuse to meticulously research potential savings, but I was delighted to find no clear-cut winner in the dynamic push and pull between Internet and brick-and-mortar stores. Because our relationship with the Internet and other technology fascinates me, this feasibility study was great fun to research and write.
- Heather Thompson

Instructor’s comment: Heather’s avid interest in new technologies for publishing and selling books found expression in two splendid reports for my English 104A: Business Reports & Technical Communication course. I have never known a student who approached research projects with such passionate excitement. Heather’s work always exceeded my expectations. Her trend report, a wide-ranging survey of epublishing, also ranked among the top-scoring entries for Prized Writing.Her impressive feasibility report challenges other students to design their own original research projects and perfectly illustrates how useful these studies can be. I was therefore delighted to learn that Heather’s study of female artists was being published in this year’s “Essays” volume of Prized Writing.She is a brilliant thinker and researcher, and a remarkably versatile writer.
- Jayne Walker, English Department


Every quarter, students try to find the cheapest and easiest way to buy books for their classes. An alternative to the UCD Bookstore has emerged during the last two years: buying textbooks online. Even more recently, some of these online textbook stores have affiliated with large universities so they can post class book lists and offer all of these books for sale. This is intended to eliminate the need to buy textbooks from different sites. Yet there are many hidden difficulties that students should be aware of.
     This study compares buying college textbooks from the UCD Bookstore,, and According to PC Data Online, since August 1999, Bigwords and Varsitybooks have been the most often visited and highest ranked online textbook stores (see Appendix C). They are also the two leading sites which post UCD class lists and claim to have the full selection of UCD class textbooks.
     In theory, locating textbooks through online class book lists makes buying textbooks much easier for students. In reality, these sites do not provide all the books for UCD classes. This comparative study of textbook store service from the UCD Bookstore, Bigwords, and Varsitybooks is based on the following criteria: selection, price, ease, and return and buyback policies.


I chose a sample at the UCD Bookstore by:

– picking 13 classes in 6 popular majors at UCD.
– recording required and recommended books in new and used condition by ISBN and price.

I compared prices and selection at Bigwords and Varsitybooks by:

– searching individually and by class list for the textbooks.
– comparing savings between the Bookstore, online vendors, and retail prices.
– comparing the Bookstore’s required books list to the online class books lists.

See Appendix A for full research results and Appendix B for a summary chart of results.

Selection: Required and recommended textbooks in new or used condition

Textbooks for all UCD courses are available at the Bookstore. Books categorized by class have tags indicating:

– the price of new and used texts, author, ISBN, and publisher
– the required and recommended books
– the number of books required for the class.

Bigwords had 82% of new books required for the sample classes in stock, but only 60% of the required used books. Though Bigwords posts UCD class lists, 4 of the 13 classes I chose were not listed, and 6 of the 9 listed were missing a book or had an extra one listed. Bigwords did not make a distinction between required and recommended books.

Varsitybooks had 82% of new books required for the sample classes in stock and does not sell used books. Varsitybooks had 11 of the 13 classes listed on the UCD class list but 7 of these 11 were missing texts or had extra texts listed. Although Varsitybooks makes the distinction between required and recommended books, it incorrectly stated a recommended book as optional and an optional book as recommended.


  % new books available % of used books available # courses on class list # course booklists correctly listed
Bookstore 100% 98% 13 13
Bigwords 82% 60% 9 3
Varsitybooks 82% 0% 11 4


Price: New and used textbook prices, including shipping and handling

The Bookstore sells new textbooks for an average of 7% less than the list price, and offers used books which consistently average 31% less than list price.

Bigwords’ new books offered a 11% savings and used books offered a 28% savings over retail prices in the hard sciences and one social science (CHE, ECS, ECN). For the other social science and the humanities (COM, POL, HIS), Bigwords offered new books at 13% cheaper and used books at 27% cheaper than retail prices. This is an average savings of 11% for new books and 28% for used books. Bigwords’s shipping and handling is free unless students want to rush orders.

Varsitybooks offered 8% savings on humanities classes and one social science class compared to retail prices. Textbooks for the other social science and hard sciences offered a savings of 18% off retail prices. These numbers give an average of 12% savings. Varsitybooks charges a flat shipping and handling fee of $4.95.


  Average new savings on Retail Average used savings on Retail Shipping & Handling
Bookstore 7% 31% $0.00
Bigwords 11% 28% $0.00
Varsitybooks 12% N/A $4.95


  COM, POL, HIS New Savings Retail COM, POL, HIS Used Savings Retail CHE, ECS, ECN New Savings Retail CHE, ECS, ECN Used Savings Retail
Bookstore 3% 27% 9% 33%
Bigwords 13% 27% 11% 28%
Varsitybooks 8% N/A 18% N/A


Return and Buy Back Policies: Cost and convenience

     The Bookstore allows returns up to two weeks into each quarter. The Bookstore buys books back during the first week of school and finals week.
     Bigwords gives students 14 days from the receipt of their books to return them. Students pay for return shipping and handling unless Bigwords errs. Bigwords buys back some books at up to 50% of the cost of the book, but no specific amounts were listed.
     Varsitybooks will allow returns up to 30 days after receipt of the order. If Varsitybooks errs, students will be reimbursed for shipping and handling fees. Varsitybooks does not offer a buy back program.


  Return Period Return Cost Buy Back
Bookstore 14 days None First and last week of class; modest returns less than 50% original price
Bigwords 14 days S/H if not their mistake Vague 50% buy back option anytime
Varsitybooks 30 days S/H if not their mistake None

Ease: Whole experience of finding and buying textbooks

     The Bookstore’s main advantages are that it is on campus, offers all books for all classes, has a no cost return policy, and has staff on hand to answer questions. Disadvantages include long lines, stalled credit card transactions, and having to go in person and drag textbooks home.
     Bigwords’ and Varsitybooks’ most obvious advantage is that textbooks are delivered to students’ houses. The stores’ websites let students search for books easily, though only one book at a time. The detailed book information includes all prices and availability while the shopping bag shows some or all of this information. Bigwords allows students to remove multiple books at one time from the shopping bag while Varsitybooks only accommodates one removal at a time. The biggest drawbacks to both sites are the shipping time of 3-5 business days, insufficient inventories, minimal savings, and for Varsitybooks, the shipping and handling costs.


  Key Advantages Key Disadvantages
Bookstore On campus
All books offered
No-cost returns
Staff on hand
Long lines
Stalled credit cards
No delivery
Bigwords & Varsitybooks Good site design
Information displayed up front
Books delivered to house
Can’t search for multiple books
Shipping time and cost
Availability and savings disappointments



     The idea of online textbooks stores posting university class book lists is novel and has the potential to save students time and money. But the current situation for UCD students shows that this online source is not yet fully developed or dependable. Students must do their own research if they wish to find the best deal; in general, online shopping works best for paperback literature books and worst for buying hardback technical textbooks.
     Online class lists are more trouble than they’re worth. Students wishing to purchase textbooks online should simply look up each book by its ISBN and consider other online textbook stores (i.e., which searches for 10 ISBNs at once). Students also might want to compare textbook prices at comparison sites like,, and




1999–2000 Thompson_Figure 1.jpg

1999–2000 Thompson_Figure 2.jpg



Online Textbook Store Criteria Comparison
  New Used Return Buy-back S/H cost Savings on UCD Savings on Retail
Bookstore 100% 98% 14 days Yes $0.00 n/a 7%-31% 82% 60% 14 days Yes $0.00 2%-21% 11%-28%> 82% n/a 30 days No $4.95 1%-45% >12%


Online Textbook Store Rankings and Unique Hits
RANK — lower number indicates more favorable ranking
  Aug 1999 Sept 1999 Oct 1999 Nov 1999 Dec 1999 Jan 2000 Feb 2000 Mar 2000 April 2000
bigwords 2219 2376 5261 2872 1057 395 878 1619 2477
varsitybooks 779 892 3592 3954 3230 484 2366 4087 4555
ecampus 799 1279 3453 7250 2233 423 3595 6603 6154
efollett 1159 2468 no data 12363 4723 837 3025 7486 3683
UNIQUE HITS (thousands) — higher number indicates more visitors
  Aug 1999 Sept 1999< Oct 1999 Nov 1999 Dec 1999 Jan 2000 Feb 2000 Mar 2000 April 2000
bigwords 233 236 102 217 479 1,425 700 454 342
varsitybooks 591 576 158 155 161 1,181 281 185 185
ecampus 577 413 164 66 237 1,332 189 110 134
efollett 418 227 no data 24 98 757 222 96 233
Source of data: www.pcdataonline/reports/free/


1999–2000 Thompson_Figure 3.jpg


1999–2000 Thompson_Figure 4.jpg