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Chip shortage is Best Buy's gain as GPU restock gets locked behind pricey membership

Is a $200 membership worth a shot at buying an Nvidia GPU?

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Angela Lang/CNET

Like other online retailers, Best Buy has been restocking high-demand products like graphics cards that quickly sell out -- but for the first time on Thursday, it allowed only paid members of its $200 Totaltech subscription service to buy GPUs.

Graphics cards have been in short supply due to global chip shortages, leading retailers to ration limited shipments using first-come, first-served and raffle systems. Scalpers have gotten smarter about gaming these systems to score products they can sell for greater profit later, making it even harder for ordinary individuals to buy GPUs. 

Best Buy's Totaltech program launched last October, offering early access to limited-supply products like GPUs and PS5s, as well as unlimited access to the company's Geek Squad tech support and special discounts. But Thursday's restock was the first time a Totaltech subscription was required to buy graphics cards, including several of the Nvidia RTX 3000 series, as PCMag reported earlier Thursday. Product listings noted that purchase during the "exclusive access event" was limited to Totaltech members.

Read more: How the global chip shortage is helping US manufacturing

Retailers started restricting their big-ticket restocks behind membership programs ahead of the holiday season to help ward off bot accounts and scalpers swiping all the inventory before customers could get any. With the PS5 and Xbox Series X no easier to get a year after they launched, paying a little extra for a better chance at a console or GPU was a good deal for some. But there's a big difference between Walmart Plus, which is $15 per month and can be canceled any time, and Totaltech's $200 annual membership.   

With the chip shortage showing no sign of abating in 2022, consumers still eager to buy a new console or graphics card may have little choice but to pay for exclusive access to even get the chance to purchase things that have topped their wish lists for over a year. Help may be on the way as Congress works toward legislation to fund chip factories on US soil, but the first of these may not start churning out silicon until 2024 at the earliest. For those who just want to level up their video game setups, chasing restocks and paying for memberships might be the only way they'll get relief anytime soon.

Best Buy didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.