Barnes & Noble to Launch New Membership Programs, Including Free Offering With a Catch

The paid service will cost $40 annually and offer discounts, free shipping and other perks

Channing Tatum appears at a Barnes & Noble book promotion in June 2022. (Getty Images)

Barnes & Noble added a free option to its membership offerings in the hope of better tracking how its customers shop and spend.

The largest bookstore chain in the U.S. is also adjusting its existing membership program, and offers free shipping along with 10% discounts and other perks to customers who pay $39.99 a year, The Wall Street Journal reported. That’s an increase from the old membership program, which cost $25 a year.

The paid membership also includes free upgrades on drinks purchased in its cafes, rather than the old program’s 10% discount at cafes, along with free tote bags and access to exclusive deals and events.

The free, lower-tier membership program doesn’t offer fancier lattes, but it does offer members a “virtual stamp” for every $10 spent on purchases. Members who accumulate 10 stamps earn a $5 credit for future purchases.

The aim is to give the bookseller the ability to learn more about its customers, including what and how often they buy, in order to pitch to them more effectively, the Journal reported. It said that the new offerings are “loosely modeled” after a program at U.K.-based book chain Waterstones, which has the same parent as B&N — hedge fund Elliott Management Corp. — and also shares its CEO, James Daunt, with its American counterpart.

“If you don’t have a free program, the vast majority of your customers are blank to you,” Daunt told the Journal. With the free offering, “You can learn what they are buying, and then promote to them and engage them.” 

“If you’re interested in ornithology or cookbooks, we’ll be in a position to offer you recommendations and special offers,” Daunt said. “It allows us to be much more intelligent and engaging and interesting.”

Daunt expects to see about three-quarters of the 5.5 million people who paid for the old program remain, but told the Journal he thinks new customers will be drawn in, and the store will end the year with roughly the same membership numbers.

But observers questioned the move of hiking the membership price amid fears of a recession. “Yes, Barnes & Noble now has a free option, but asking people to pay more during an uncertain economy is risky,” pricing-strategy consultant Rafi Mohammed told the Journal. He added that he would have kept offering the lower-priced option along with the new program.

The effort mirrors that of competitors like Amazon, which charges $139 for its Prime membership that includes “Prime Reading,” providing access to free books and magazines and other perks along with free shipping and access to Prime Video. Walmart has a $98 annual membership that includes free access to the Paramount + streaming service.