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The Dartmouth
April 15, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Bookstores sue Varsitybooks.com

In another lawsuit against Internet retailers, the National Association of College Stores is suing Varsitybooks.com, accusing the on-line bookstore of false and misleading advertising concerning textbook discounts.

The association, which represents about 3,000 stores around the country, including the Dartmouth Bookstore and Wheelock Books, is claiming that while Varsitybooks.com advertises textbooks at up to 40 percent off of "suggested list prices," only a small percentage of their books come at that price.

According to the association, in the textbook industry, where publishers sell their books to college stores and offer only a suggested student price, there is no such thing as a universal retail price. Instead, college stores sell textbooks at a markup price of their choosing.

The association "has brought the case to lower the playing field," said Reed Freeman, an attorney at the Arent Fox law firm in Washington D.C., which is representing the National Association in its case.

The case, which is being filed in a federal court in Washington D.C., should be settled before this January, the next major book-buying season.

"I think that [the association] has an excellent chance because students are being misled regarding the number and percentage of books that come at the discount," said Freeman. "In this case, the false and deceptive claims reach every single college student in the country by being on the Internet."

But the vice president of Varsitybooks.com, Jon Kaplan, said that such claims are "completely without merit."

"We advertise at up to 40 percent off," he said. "And we get our suggested retail prices from our book distributor [Baker & Taylor] which is one of the largest distributors in the country and they do a very professional job."

Both the Dartmouth Bookstore and Wheelock Books said that they support the case against Varsitybooks.com.

"They're telling students that bookstores like the Dartmouth Bookstore are overcharging, which just isn't true," said Dave Cioffi, the general manager of the Dartmouth Bookstore. "If you're a Dartmouth Bookstore member and you take away the postage, the prices are basically the same. And because students here change courses so much and the term is so short, it seems to me that students are at a real disadvantage if they use [Varsitybooks.com]."

Cioffi said of the impact Varsitybooks.com has had on his store's business: "Anytime that there's a competitor in your market, it's going to take a slice out of your market. But it hasn't been a big slice."

At Wheelock Books, Whit Spaulding, the bookstore's owner, said that the competition generated from on-line retailers has not affected his business.

"We haven't seen an effect on our sales, our sales continue to grow," he said.

While Wheelock Books declined to release its average markup rates, the Dartmouth Bookstore said that, excluding foreign books, it usually charges between 10 and 25 percent more than the cost of each book, depending on shipping fees.

This case between Varsitybooks.com and the National Association of College Stores is the second in which a major on-line bookseller has found itself under litigation. In 1997, Barnes & Noble sued Amazon.com, accusing it of false advertising when it claimed to be the "world's largest bookstore" in promotional material.

Saying that "they would rather compete in the marketplace than in the courtroom," the two companies settled the lawsuit six months later and barnesandnoble.com was formed.