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Free Courses Spark Site Traffic, Book Sales

Free online courses at Barnes&Noble.com in topics such as home & leisure, history & society and life improvement have driven traffic and increased sales for the bookseller.

The New York company claims that nearly 400,000 students have enrolled at Barnes & Noble University since its June 2000 launch at www.bn.com/university.

“The enrollments in the university are leading to sales, definitely,” said Len Gilbert, vice president of distance learning at Barnes & Noble.com. Gilbert would not elaborate on the university's contribution to sales for the nation's No. 2 online bookseller after Amazon.com Inc., Seattle. But he saw a link between enrollments and purchases.

“We're seeing that an increasing number of our students are buying their books in the stores, and what's particular is that they're staying brand loyal,” he said. “They either buy at Barnes & Noble.com online or they buy at Barnes & Noble Inc. at their stores, but they stay loyal to the Barnes & Noble brand and they understand that the free courses are coming to them from Barnes & Noble.”

Barnes & Noble University has expanded the number of courses from 30 a month to between 50 and 60. Taught by experts in the field or authors, courses are offered in eight online campuses. One of the most popular courses is “Introduction to Astrology,” by Susan Miller, who penned “Planets and Possibilities.” It drew tens of thousand of people, Gilbert said, refusing to disclose the exact number.

After enrollment, an e-mail to students from Barnes & Noble.com outlines recommended reading material.

“[Enrollees] tend to order the books right when they sign,” Gilbert said. “I think people who sign up for a class a day or two before it starts are probably buying their books in the stores because they know they can get them right away, whereas unless they live in Manhattan it'll take us a couple of days to get the book to them.”

Once the class starts, a lesson is posted twice a week, either in text or in pictures. A message board on the university area offers a virtual classroom environment for interaction with other students and the teachers.

Though the holidays are a big draw for online retailers, that is not expected for Barnes & Noble University.

“The holidays aren't a huge time for the university,” Gilbert said. “In general, our view is that around the holidays, the last thing that someone wants to do is take time to take a class. We tend to gain more students in the fall, and then we'll do a lot in January, when people want to renew themselves and learn new things.”

While many students come from the site, an increasing number arrive from the Barnes & Noble retail stores. Stores promote the university through signage and a glossy, tri-fold brochure placed monthly.

The online university is becoming critical in getting consumers to visit the site frequently. This not only improves interaction between brand and consumer, but also raises the likelihood of impulse purchases.

“The average student's taking two-plus courses and they're coming and taking classes once a week, and they're also telling that they're buying things outside the course,” Gilbert said. “So we think we're creating better customers by giving them the online equivalent of the comfortable chairs that they have at the Barnes & Noble stores.”

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