The list of reasons for Ann Arbor booksellers to be worried just got a little longer.
Chegg.com, a new online textbook company, claims it will soon put campus bookstores out of business by not selling books to students, but instead renting them to students.
The company is the one of the larger companies using a relatively new business model in which students rent textbooks for the semester. A number of sites, like bookrenter.com and campusbookrentals.com, offer similar services.
Aayush Phumbra, co-founder and senior vice president of operations at Chegg.com, said the idea for the company came from his experience as an undergraduate when he felt he paid too much money for books and got too little when he sold them back.
Phumbra said Chegg.com’s business model mitigates this problem for students.
“We make it really cheap up front and then, at the end of the semester, you don’t have to go and not be able to sell them back or get a fraction of what you paid from the campus bookstore,” he said.
Students from more than 6,400 campuses have used the website, according to Phumbra. The website has a ticker that counts the number of dollars the company has saved students in real-time. Currently, the number is at more than $71 million and counting.
The rental concept and the larger online market could cause trouble down the road for traditional campus bookstores, like Ulrich’s Bookstore and Michigan Book & Supply, if they can’t find a way to compete with the lower prices at Chegg.com and other popular online vendors like Amazon and Half.com.
Managers at Ulrich’s and Michigan Book & Supply refused to comment for this story.
This past June, Ann Arbor bookstore Shaman Drum closed its doors after 29 years. Former owner Karl Pohrt partially attributed the closing to the rise of Internet book vendors.
Shaman Drum began suffering financially due to “customers migrating to the Internet coupled with the frightening economic crisis,” Pohrt wrote in an open letter published by The Ann Arbor Chronicle on Feb. 17.
Pohrt said in a Feb. 19 article in The Michigan Daily that textbook sales in particular were steadily declining at the local bookstore before it closed because more students bought textbooks online.
Many students said that in deciding where to buy textbooks, price is a larger factor than loyalty to campus bookstores.
Art & Design senior Chris Firlik, who rented textbooks from Chegg.com during both semesters last year, said the lower prices led her to the site.
“To a certain extent, it’s important to support local businesses. That’s why I like going in to bookstores to buy ones for my English classes,” Firlik said. “But in some cases, people cannot afford to pay those high prices.”
“It’s pretty irritating to buy a book for a couple hundred dollars and then maybe get 8 percent back for it,” she added.
Firlik said she no longer uses Chegg.com because the classes she takes now use novels rather than traditional textbooks. She said she likes to keep the novels after the classes end, so reselling the books is not a problem.
Engineering junior Kurt Kurzenhauser also said he decides where to buy books based on price, but that he likes to keep certain textbooks for reference in more advanced classes.
“For some textbooks, especially new editions, (renting) sounds useful,” he said. “But as I get more advanced, I want to keep my textbooks. I use them in other classes.”
Engineering sophomore Hiroko Nakahama said she considered renting textbooks from Chegg.com last semester but found it to be too expensive.
“I looked up Bio and Material Science. It’s stupid to borrow Bio for $100 or Material Science for $60 when it’s not that much more to just buy it,” Nakahama said.
Nakahama also said that the process of selling books back is a major hassle.
“I hate having to go through selling,” Nakahama said. “You go to the bookstore and a lot of times they don’t buy the books back for anything.”
She added, though, that she recently bought a new edition of her biology book hoping she could sell it back for a better profit than what it would have cost to rent it.
Phumbra wouldn’t say if he agrees that Chegg.com would “put campus bookstores out of business,” a claim a representative from the company made in an e-mail to the Daily on Nov. 17.
But, he added that he thinks “everyone’s really happy about saving students money.”
Phumbra said the company has not yet turned a profit but will do so after the books have been lent out a few times. Chegg.com now owns 2.4 million books, but looks to widely expand that collection with $57 million in venture capital the company reported receiving on Nov. 19.
The company has rental periods from 60 to 125 days, with slight price alterations based on duration. The company also allows students to highlight books “within reason” without repercussions, according to Phumbra.