Over the course of their college years, countless students have spent thousands of dollars and seemingly thousands of hours in line in the campus bookstore buying books for their classes. Thanks to the Internet, you can save both money and time by purchasing your books online.

“You can almost certainly find better deals online than you can at your local bookstore,” says Steve Loyola, president of Best Book Buys, an online textbook price comparison site for college students.

One reason you can get a better deal is because online stores, by nature, don’t have to pay the overhead costs that a brick-and-mortar bookstore does. College bookstores need about 21.4 cents to cover store operations and staff salaries from every dollar spent on new textbooks, according to the National Association of College Stores.

“Compared to a college bookstore, an online store’s costs are so much lower because all the store needs is a Web site and a warehouse,” says Loyola. “They don’t have all the other costs associated with running a retail outlet, so those savings get passed on to the consumer.”

Such savings should not be taken lightly. According to a national survey of textbook prices released in February 2005, by the State Public Interest Research Groups, the average student will spend $900 per year on textbooks. Subtract the roughly 20 percent that typically goes to the college store and you can see hundreds of dollars in savings over the course of four years.

When it comes to online shopping for textbooks, it’s important to note that all shopping sites are not the same. Don’t assume that every Web site will give you a better deal than the campus store. “Not every online bookstore is going to be cheaper,” says Loyola. “There are ones out there that will sell textbooks at list price.”

Some Web sites such as Bookbyte.com and eCampus.com collect new and used textbooks from publishers and other users and sell them to you for a discounted price. Other Web sites such as CampusBookSwap and Half.com serve as online marketplaces where buyers and sellers of used textbooks can meet virtually and come up with terms for a sale. Other sites such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble sell books directly. What’s more you also can sell your used textbooks at Barnes & Noble and at Amazon.

To help students make sense of so many choices, another type of Web site has sprung up: sites such as BestBookBuys.com and CampusBooks.com that allow you to compare prices and textbook delivery terms.

While some of these sites can save you money, it’s important to understand exactly what you’re getting or you may end up on the losing end of the deal. Take shipping costs. You might find a great deal on a textbook you need, but when you add in the shipping costs you might end up paying more than you would have paid in the campus store.

Another thing you want to look into before making a purchase is the refund policy. What happens if you decide not to take the class after all? Can you send the book back?

Then, there is the question of delivery time. You can walk into the campus bookstore the morning of the first day of class and come out with everything you need. If you buy a book from an online store, you need to factor in the additional time it takes for the book to get to you whether it be a week or in some cases a month.

“Some campus stores have students coming in after a class has started to purchase a book because they ordered it from an online site and it didn’t get there in time,” says Jennifer Libertowski, a spokeswoman for the National Association of College Stores. “So a lot of times what appears to be a money saver really isn’t.”

It’s also important to make sure you’re getting the right edition of a textbook. While your campus store works with your professors to make sure the right edition is in stock, online bookstores tend to have multiple editions, so you have to be sure you’re getting the right one.

Another variable when it comes to buying books online is the condition.

The condition is generally not a concern if you’re buying new books online. Likewise, large online bookstores that collect books and resell them tend to have certain standards of quality that the books will meet.

However, when you’re buying a used book from a marketplace-type site that is merely connecting you to someone who’s trying to sell that book, you might find that your idea of good quality does not correspond with that person’s idea of good quality. Many such sites, however, do have a built-in rating system that lets buyers post complaints about sellers, so it’s a good idea to check for complaints before making a purchase.

The proliferation of online bookstores has not been lost on college-store retailers. “One of the ways college stores are responding to the online market is by developing their own Web sites,” says Libertowski.

While books are often no cheaper on the campus store’s Web site than they are in the store, you can avoid long lines in the bookstore by using the store Web site to order books, which will be held for the student for pickup. When shopping for books online, compare prices and delivery terms to make sure you’re getting the best deal, and start as early as you can.

“Clearly you can’t procrastinate until the day before class to order all your books,” says Loyola. “You do need to do a little more planning ahead than some college students tend to do. The payoff is if you do plan ahead and order your books a week or two before class starts, you’re going to save a ton of money.”

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