UNL students offer alternative textbook service

Story and photo by Demetria Stephens, NewsNetNebraska

Students have more options in their hustle to buy textbooks twice a semester, including a cost-saving service built by their classmates.

James Verhoeff, a junior management and marketing major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, co-founded the Red Exchange as a online, student-run textbook exchange in December 2011.

The idea of book-buying alternatives first came to Verhoeff after his freshman year, when he was told to buy his textbooks through the UNL Bookstore and ended up spending about $600.

“There’s a class before me that was full of students,” he remembers thinking at the time. “Where did those textbooks go?”

Upperclassmen later told him to buy textbooks online or from other students around campus. While he saved some money that way, Verhoeff wanted a more direct transfer. A UNL Facebook group connected some students, but it wasn’t easy to search for books, he said. So Verhoeff, who has a computer science and economics minor, started work on the Red Exchange with his classmate Zach Christensen, a junior biochemistry major, to make a simplified, searchable database, like Craigslist for textbooks at UNL. It takes out the middleman, he said.

The service has two kinds of users, buyers and sellers. Sellers have to create an account to add books. They set their own price and input their contact information.  The buyers don’t need an account; they simply search for books by titles, courses, residence halls and ISBN numbers and then the list with the books comes up with information the sellers posted. Users are on their own from there.

“You can do that exchange however you want,” Verhoeff said. “We just provide the connection.”

Dustin Patt, a senior horticulture major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, leaves the UNL Bookstore after buying a notebook, March 25. Patt said the most he spent buying a textbook was about $250.

Dustin Patt, a senior horticulture major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, leaves the UNL Bookstore after buying a notebook, March 25. Patt said the most he spent buying a textbook was about $250.

Verhoeff remembered selling a business law textbook, which cost about $150 at the UNL Bookstore, to another student through the Red Exchange.

“I totally played it dumb like I was just like a normal person that used the Red Exchange,” he said. “It was so funny to hear his side of it. He was so thankful.”

Christensen worked on the database, Verhoeff did the front-end advertising. They enlisted Caitlin Bales, a senior computer science major, to change the page with white background and black text to one with Memorial Stadium in the background.

“We finally put a little bit of Husker flavor on it,” Verhoeff said.

The site had about 2,800 visitors since it launched, with 1,800 unique visitors, but there is really no accurate way to track transactions, he said. Users delete listings, supposedly after a transaction goes through, but there’s no way to know if a transaction was completed. Christensen said there have been 30 deleted listings since the site started. The pair haven’t received much feedback about whether the service was useful, he said.

Melanie Lorenz, a junior accounting major, bought one book through the Red Exchange.

“When I heard about it, I thought, ‘Yes, I’m going to use this right away.’”

She paid more than $1,000 for books at the UNL Bookstore her first year — more than the $655 annual estimate students spend, according to a 2012 study by the National Association of College Stores. Lorenz stopped using the UNL Bookstore and dealt directly with students, mostly buying and selling through Amazon.

She put seven or eight books for sale on the Red Exchange, but didn’t get any interest and ended up selling them to students she knew would be taking her classes. She emailed four or five students to buy books through the service and only got a reply from one, who already sold the book. Still, she said the service could take off.

“I think it might be a matter of publicity because there’s some really, really good deals on there.”

Verhoeff and Christensen advertised the service heavily at first, but they since have moved on to an unrelated new project, launching a smartphone application, “PickIt,” in February. The application is a coupon service that offers discount at some Lincoln stores and gives a portion of purchases to a philanthropy of the user’s choice.

“We like working on stuff,” he said. “It’s a weird hobby. We sit around on weekends and think, what should we do?”

Verhoeff noticed the UNL bookstore’s prices seemed  more competitive compared to online after the Red Exchanged launched, too. Online competitors pushed bookstores to use rentals in the last four to five years, which saves students money, said Michael Schmidt, manager of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Bookstore. Follett Higher Education Group, which offers the Rent-A-Text service at the UNL Bookstore, said students saved $130 million from 2010 to 2011, according to its 2011 annual report.

The whole industry changed because of the Internet, including the student exchanges, Schmidt said.  While student exchanges were popular in the 1970s, nothing compares to shipping a book on Amazon from your home or office, sometimes for as little as 50 cents, he said.

“Everybody wants instant gratification.”

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