Northwestern students create website offering textbook price comparisons

Meghan Morris

The website is simple: Type in a Northwestern academic department, click a class and compare how much a textbook would cost, used or new, online and from the Norris bookstore.

Weinberg juniors Joseph Chiang and Jon Zeller, launched in August to provide an alternative for book buyers. For example, the textbook for General Inorganic Chemistry costs $192.56 at Norris but can be found on Amazon for $71.10 new and $66.74 used.

Zeller said the site offers students both convenience and lower prices.

“It’s ridiculous that students pay so much for books at Norris and Beck’s (Books), which have a monopoly on the market, marking books up 25 to 30 percent higher,” Zeller said. “Most people don’t have cars so they can’t go beyond Norris.”

In Fall Quarter, the students generated $20,000 in revenue for Amazon through the site and received a commission from the company. A friend studying computer science at Yale University developed the software for a class last spring. The Yale and NU sites are nearly identical, except for a changed banner color and different courses.

McCormick junior Max Slivinsky said he bought books from in both Fall and Winter quarters.

“It’s super well-designed,” he said. “I saved 10 to 15 percent, I presume.”

Chiang and Zeller originally marketed their website with fliers in the fall, but Zeller said he realized how easily their flier could get lost among dozens of student group advertisements.

“We decided to do more online marketing because if you’re not in front of a computer, you probably forget what you see on a flyer even if you thought it was cool,” Zeller said.

They forwarded the link to as many campus email lists as possible and said the site grew mainly by word-of-mouth.

“We could send it out just over the fraternity (email list) or we could contact everyone we know,” Zeller said. “In your own business, you’re as successful as you want to be.”

Chiang said they tried in the fall to reach freshmen, who were eager to buy textbooks but didn’t know about options beyond Beck’s and Norris. They plan to use the same strategy for the next incoming class.

“We want to establish the site so that when the class of 2016 comes in they know to use it right away,” Chiang said.

Neither Chiang nor Zeller had formal marketing experience, and they said the past five months have been a learning opportunity they can apply to future jobs.

“Running this business has been the most sales and marketing I’ve done since Boy Scouts,” Zeller said.

In addition to gaining practical skills and a paycheck, the site paid off for Zeller in a different way: He saved $80 on two of his own textbooks this quarter.

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