Backpacks Get Lighter While Ebook Retailer Wallets Get Heavier

September is back-to-school time, but many students this year are headed forward – to the future that is. Our data suggest that e-books may finally be sounding the death knell for printed textbooks.

Technology continues to change how we work, play and, now, learn. Netflix forced Blockbuster to nearly go bust, while Hulu and YouTube continue to turn the TV watching experience – and the ad industry – upside-down.

On the textbook front, we started with a basic transition from school stores to textbooks online. That helped services such as E-Campus and AbeBooks grow, and our data show they experienced traffic increases in September since 2009. In 2011, however, something changed. The graph below shows how Chegg, a site offering students the opportunity to rent and download e-textbooks right to their computer, has methodically surpassed E-Campus and is chipping away at AbeBooks.

Over the past two years, Chegg has shown strong spikes in traffic in the month preceding the fall and spring semesters. This year is no exception. The graph below shows daily reach numbers for the same group in late August, and Chegg is in the top position. This could be the technology tipping point.

While Chegg may be pulling a “Netflix” on the industry, it may have a weakness other competitors can exploit. Chegg’s textbook rentals are not downloadable to e-book readers such as Kindle and Nook, so market share is at risk to Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, whose e-books are accessible across a variety of channels, including online, smartphones and PC’s.

So this comes down to a behavioral shift as well. Which devices will prevail: e-book readers, tablets, laptops? Considering the astronomical cost of textbooks over four years, a shift toward electronic textbook downloads exclusively seems inevitable. But Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble have focused their marketing for the 2011-2012 school year on traditional new and used textbooks, albeit at discounts, and this may have cost them traffic from the college-aged crowd.

Let’s take a look at UV’s to Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble over the past two years, broken down by age.

Amazon.com Age Demographics


Barnes & Noble Age Demographics

Over this period, visitors comprising the college demographic (18-24 year-olds) grew very little. In fact, we can see an actual decline this year. We can’t help but wonder whether that decline would have been a dramatic increase instead if Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble were aggressively marketing Kindles and Nooks as the must-have technology accessory for students this year – or at the very least, the multi-channel accessibility of their e-books.

The jury is still out on which device – tablet, e-book reader or laptop – will prevail, but for now it’s anyone’s game. It will be interesting to see what happens next semester!