Major contenders, including Big Words (bigwords.com), ecampus.com and VarsityBooks.com, are unveiling fall campaigns in the $5 million to $10 million range plus on-campus promotions. The aim: Convince students the sites can provide the right textbooks, at the right price, right in time for classes to begin.
The efforts are intended to crown one of the online booksellers as the big book on campus, executives at the e-bookstores readily admit. This fall semester could make or break digital college bookstores, a market that extends to traditional textbook store operators such as Follett Corp. and to store spinoff barnesandnoble.com, which links to a site, textbooks.com, that is owned by its CEO.
FALL THE ONLY TIME THAT MATTERS
"Fall is the only time of year that matters," says Doug Wallace, new media manager, Passport Online, which produces software for Web sites enabling campus bookstores to market merchandise to parents and alumni.
Most ads are from digital book purveyors, who hope not only to grab a large percentage of the $8.5 billion college textbook category, but also to create buzz to get repeat business and extend into other product categories.
"Textbooks are only the beginning of what we hope to sell to college students," said Matt Johnson, CEO, Big Words, San Francisco. "The huge barrier to entry is whether online stores can deliver what they need at the exact time they need it. Textbooks . . . are a good test of that commitment."
In all, college students spend about $105 billion annually.
Amazon.com, which used general books as its first retailing category, also could play well in school. There was talk earlier this summer of Amazon's interest in acquiring VarsityBooks.com; Amazon and VarsityBooks had no comment.
Online textbook sellers seem to have a natural market: Ecampus.-com estimates 89% of the 15 million students enrolled in higher-education institutions use the Internet, and 18% of that group made online purchases in the past year.
So book sites are racing to class.
Ecampus.com, backed by Wendy's International founder Dave Thomas, was conceived Jan. 20, opened its site July 2 and began a campaign last week with spot TV, in-theater and print ads.
The Lexington, Ky., start-up bets the ads' sophomoric approach -- including bathroom humor -- will resonate with college students in the estimated $10 million, monthlong blitz. Ecampus and agency DeVito/Verdi, New York, declined comment.
Meanwhile, Big Words today breaks a more than $5 million campaign, which begins with radio, moves to outdoor and then cable TV that breaks Aug. 30 featuring MTV celebrity Tom Green.
Big Words, begun in August 1998, has built a management team that includes seasoned interactive players such as VP-Marketing Communications Dick Hackenberg.
VarsityBooks.com, which also opened one year ago, is unleashing its more than 2,000 student campus reps to spread the word. The Washington-based venture features book lists from more than 300 colleges.
"Our student representatives are our secret, competitive advantage," said Eric Kuhn, president-CEO, VarsityBooks.com. "We stay very local in our advertising because what generally works at one campus doesn't work for another."
Radio spots, campus newspaper ads and sponsorships round out VarsityBooks' strategy. K2 Design, New York, handles advertising; Starcom Media, Chicago, buys media.
The average purchase is about $100, Mr. Kuhn said. "Last semester, we saw students buying one or two textbooks, but this fall, we do expect to see more students buy all of their books online."
Ecampus.com sells textbooks plus college logo merchandise, electronics, computers, office and general supplies, music and gifts.
It's that extension beyond textbooks that has caught the attention of the National Association of College Stores, which says textbooks are the least profitable part of college bookstores' merchandise, with profit as low as 3 cents per dollar.
Jerry Buchs, director of public relations, National Association of College Stores, said this competition "is different."
CAMPUS BOOKSTORES RETALIATE
The 3,100-member association in August gave members marketing kits, complete with ad slicks themed, "Shop smart. Be sure. Shop at your local college store," that hit online bookstores' most vulnerable spot: on-time delivery.
One member, Follett, has built Web sites allowing online ordering for the 600 campus bookstores it manages and 150 others who pay to be part of Follett's site, efollett.com.
Barnes & Noble College Bookstores, which operates several hundred college stores, in January got in the online game with textbooks.com. The college stores are owned by Steve Riggio, CEO of the separate Barnes & Noble general bookstores.
Textbooks.com last week broke an estimated $5 million advertising campaign from TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, that includes magazines, radio and banner ads. A