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Amazon's prices for used college textbooks are consistently low

Barnes & Noble found to be most expensive in Consumer Reports' shopping test

Published: August 22, 2014 12:00 PM

Click on the photo to see the results from our used-textbook shopping test.

College students shopping for used textbooks online this semester should first check out Amazon. In Consumer Reports' first-ever college-textbook shopping test of five popular websites for college textbooks, Amazon's used-textbook prices were consistently low. Barnes & Noble generally posted higher prices for used textbooks.

Among the five online vendors tested—AmazonBarnes & NobleBookbyteChegg, and TextbookRushBookbyte and Chegg are also worth considering. They sometimes had the lowest prices, though in our test Chegg also had the highest price for one title.

We found no marked difference among the websites in the pricing of new books. Our small sample included five popular textbooks.

The shopping expedition

The test, conducted in July, compared prices of five popular textbooks, as compiled by textbooks.com. They included "Sociology in Our Times: The Essentials" (8th edition), by Diana Kendall; "Survey of Mathematics with Applications" (8th edition), by Allen R. Angel; "Conceptual Chemistry" (4th edition), by John A. Suchocki; "Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association" 2nd Printing (6th edition), by the American Psychological Association, and "Human Geography in Action" (5th edition), by Michael Kuby.
 
We then chose five textbook vendors: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookbyte, Chegg, and TextbookRush. We also researched the pricing of each textbook purchased directly from the publisher. From there, we searched and compared available books, book formats, and costs. (The test compared used books that were characterized as good quality or better.)
 
Prices for each title and each vendor were collected twice, about two weeks apart. Shipping and taxes were not included.

Read our advice on renting textbooks, using e-textbooks, and other ways to get the college books you need. And for more on back-to-school products, read the Consumer Reports Back-to-School Shopping Guide.

What we found

Used texbooks. On average, we found that Amazon was most consistent in its low pricing, though it never had the cheapest price for any individual book. In contrast, Bookbyte and Chegg's prices were very variable. Sometimes they had the lowest prices, and sometimes their prices were very high.

With one exception, Barnes & Noble was found to be the most expensive. For example, Barnes & Noble marked "Sociology in Our Times: The Essentials," at $122.07, as compared to the cheapest price of $5.49, on Chegg.

Our test only looked at titles purchased directly from the website vendors. We did not compare prices of used books sold via the sites' marketplaces, where individuals and independent book vendors sell their wares. 

Bottom line: Check out Amazon, Bookbyte or Chegg first. But make sure to view titles offered through the marketplace option offered by several of these companies; you might get lucky and find a better bargain. Prices also may change depending on the season, availability, and other factors.

New texbooks. We found no significant pattern in the pricing of new textbooks.

In a some cases, the new book titles were not available. At the time that we searched, Bookbyte had all five of the  titles available on our first visit, and four on our second visit. Chegg only had two of the five on both visits. Amazon had three of the five on our first visit and four on our second. And at Barnes and Noble and TextbookRush, three of the five titles were available on both visits. Sometimes a seller that offered the cheapest price on one title offered the most expensive price on a different title. 

Bottom line: For new textbooks, compare among several sellers for a particular title. Use promo codes, coupons, or member benefits, if you can find them. Sometimes a seller's Web site will give the promo code. The vendor also may offer discounts via e-mail only, so consider registering for alerts. An online search for the book's title will show a range of prices.

—Marcy Robles

Did you know?

College textbook prices are increasing at a rate three times faster than inflation, according to a 2013 U.S. Government Accountability Office report. The National Association of College Stores reports that college students estimated spending about $638 on textbooks for the 2013-2014 academic year. The College Board says that the amount spent by a student on both books and supplies in the 2013-2014 academic year was roughly $1,200


   

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