One of the ads in dispute.

Is 60% back truly 60% back when it’s in the form of an gift card, not cash?

That’s one of the disagreements between Amazon and the National Association of College Stores over the Internet retailer’s promotional claims about the terms of its college textbook sales and buyback program.

The NACS says a gift card doesn’t live up to the promise. It also argues that Amazon’s claims of up to 30% off new textbooks and up to 90% off used textbooks are vague (i.e., 30% and 90% off of what?) and unsubstantiated.

The association in March filed a private complaint against Amazon with the Better Business Bureau. It became public on Tuesday when Amazon filed a complaint of its own in U.S. District Court in Seattle, disputing the organization’s argument and seeking a declaratory judgment in its favor.

In its complaint, Amazon seeks to substantiate the claims — comparing its prices vs. the list prices of its top 20 best-selling college textbooks. It concludes that new versions of 16 of the titles were available for more than 30% off the list price, and used versions of 10 were available for more than 90% off the list price.

“The pricing and convenience of Amazon’s textbook program has been extremely popular with college students since it launched, and college students increasingly look to Amazon as their first and primary option for buying and selling textbooks,” says Amazon in its complaint. “The prices available from Amazon on new and used books are a direct competitive threat to NACS members and their continued ability to profit from the sale of textbooks at list price.”

Amazon’s suit acknowledges that it buys textbooks back in exchange for gift cards, not cash or check, but it doesn’t address the NACS argument the “60% back” claim is false as a result.

In a statement, the NACS says it filed the proceeding with the Better Business Bureau to “promote a level playing field by eliminating unsubstantiated advertising claims.”

Read the NACS complaint here: PDF, 12 pages; and the Amazon complaint here: PDF, 15 pages.

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  • Dennis Hamilton

    Using gift cards as rebates is an interesting practice. Qwest did that a while back (but I could apply it to my phone bill so I wasn’t disturbed). I also got a gift card from Dell for $100 when I bought a new desktop system. I only managed to spend $88 of it before it expired though.

    A more acceptable deal is a Reward Card (not tied to a vendor but honored by a credit-card company). I won a Reward Card in a Twitter-held contest and I used all of it (which had a distant expiration date too) to pay veterinary bills.

    The case seems more complex. Students can of course sell their used text books themselves on, or even go together and do sales as a group. But with a 60% buy-back promise, getting it as a credit for use on seems like a reasonable no-fuss deal, especially if one is already an customer (and assuming it can be used for any purchases whatsoever and the gift card does not expire too quickly).

    The college textbook situation is pretty dismal. I remember buying an used copy of an $80 textbook for $12 a few years ago, but the second edition was the one already-required for courses. (I got it for personal use and review so I didn’t care). The third edition is today priced at $113, sold by for $79 and available used (on too) for under $5. Of course, the 4th edition is already out: list $111, $77, and lowest used price $52 so the current buyback price is $40.72. Interesting. On a page where a buyback is offered, there is a link to the complete conditions, and a secondary link to how the gift card works. It is a little lengthy but the deal seems to be completely clear. When the 5th edition becomes required for courses, the buyback will collapse, of course.

    However the suit with Amazon works out, I think it is great that it puts a kink in the forced-obsolescence of course-prerequisite textbooks. The only way to shortstop Amazon is to obsolete the books every year (or term) and I suspect that would be suicidal, although it would lead college bookstores to forget about publishers and use printed-on-demand notes from the professors. I wonder how that will turn out, especially while there is some indication that there’s a higher-education bubble about to burst.

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