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UI bookstore sees traffic spike after launching new comparison tool

BY BRENT GRIFFITHS | AUGUST 22, 2012 6:30 AM

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Countless students have packed into the cramped aisles of the University Bookstore over the last few days, syllabi in hand, to find their textbooks at the start of the semester.

This hunt for books repeats itself each semester, but this time around, students have a new way to mitigate the high costs of books.

The UI announced Monday that the bookstore partnered with Verba software to provide students a tool allowing them to compare University Bookstore textbook and rental prices with online sellers including Half, Amazon, and Alibris, in addition to wholesaler Follet and e-book seller Course Connect.

The university pays a yearly fee to Verba Software, the creator of the price-comparison tool, but officials said Tuesday they were unable to disclose that price. Roughly 230 other universities nationwide use the software, including Iowa State University.

“[Our goal] is to provide students with a service to see what books they need and what the pricing … [was] for those books,” said Richard Shannon, the general manager of the bookstore.

This bargain hunting appears to be a growing trend among college students. Roughly 67 percent of college students reported that they comparison shop when searching for required course materials, up from 57 percent the previous year, according to a 2012 National Association of College Stores study.

Shannon also said web traffic on the Hawk Shop website increased by 25 percent on the day of the announcement. The total number of people who have used the service will not available until this weekend, he said.

Yet competitors of the bookstore were unimpressed with the technology, pointing out that this service has been available.

“Oh heavens no, that technology has been out for years. Anybody that’s interested has access to it,” said Peter Vanderhoef, the president of Iowa Book. “We have a computer downstairs that students can use.”

Eric Scmitz, the owner of the Beat the Bookstore, said he believes even having all of the various sellers is no advantage over current technology, although the technology is still too recent to judge the effect it will have competitors.

“People determined to buy books online will regardless of if this technology is there,” he said. “Students are already pretty savvy enough to know how to shop online or where to go.”
Students had mixed reactions to the new program.

One student said he has used similar approaches in the past and would keep the program in mind for future use.

“I usually do [check the prices] of my books online, and it’s a great system to check out,” said UI senior Darius Bowie, a former Daily Iowan TV employee.

Jared Pearlman, a cofounder of Verba software, said the university paid for the service and the bookstore still makes some money even when students buy from other sources through affiliate commissions. 

“Part of what the software does is shows that bookstores have more competitive prices than what students typically think,” Pearlman said.

The bookstore’s use of the software continues the theme that the founders envisioned when they created the program years ago as a student-government project at Harvard, including the belief to help students address the yearly problem of wanting to find the cheapest place to buy their books.

“We still strongly believe in transparency for the bookstore and providing students with a single site where they can see everything in one place,” Pearlman said.


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