Barnes and Noble Providing Free Wi-Fi in Bookstores

Published October 1, 2009

Barnes & Noble, the world’s largest bookseller, has offered wi-fi service for a fee since 2005 but recently started offering it for free. The move reflects a private-sector trend that’s making wi-fi run by municipalities with tax dollars increasingly obsolete.

The free wi-fi, delivered through a partnership between Barnes & Noble and AT&T, should be available in all the company’s bookstores nationwide by the end of the year.

Best of Both Worlds

Michael Nelson, a visiting professor of Internet Studies at Georgetown University, thinks Barnes & Noble has made a smart move that shows how quickly the private sector can keep up with ever-changing demand.

“If Barnes & Noble does this right, they are going to blend the virtual and paper-based worlds,” Nelson said. “That is the real challenge, right now: How do you span the electronic and paper-based worlds? It is like putting in the paper-based world.

“The Internet certainly does sell books,” Nelson added. “It gives people access to book reviews they need and abstracts that spark their attention, and it encourages them to spend money on something that is on paper.”

Increasing Sense of Community

Steve Riggio, CEO of Barnes & Noble, says the company is deepening its bond with its customers by offering free wi-fi.

“By providing no-fee wi-fi access, we are not only meeting our customers’ needs, but extending the sense of community that has always been in our stores,” Riggio said in a statement.

Nelson agrees, noting Barnes & Noble is already becoming an after-school community center for kids.

“The other phenomenon we are seeing at Barnes & Noble is high school kids going to the bookstore after classes are out, flipping through magazines and such,” Nelson said. “Barnes & Noble is supplanting some of the purposes of a community library, and again having the wi-fi is one more reason for people in the community to come and hang out there.”

Growing Trend

With free wi-fi popping up in more and more bookstores—even small, independent shops—that proves the service is not expensive for the private sector to set up and maintain, Nelson says.

“It is not at all that expensive to offer this free service,” Nelson said. “There are a lot of Ma’ and Pa’ shops that offer it, and it is increasing the ‘stickiness’ at the store—getting people to stay longer.

“Studies show that the longer people stay on your premises the more likely they will say to themselves: ‘I need that book or magazine,'” Nelson noted.

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.