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Not long ago, offering free Wi-Fi was commonly relegated to coffee shops and restaurants; used as bait to keep guests in stores longer, buying more. Now, brick-and-mortar retailers of all shapes and sizes have come to embrace free Wi-Fi for the opportunity it presents to engage customers. Some retailers even use their Wi-Fi network to gather data about their customers’ behaviors and habits—where they’re spending time in the store, what they’re looking at online while shopping, whether or not they buy anything, how long they shop for—all of this is valuable information a retail business uses in marketing operations.

As smartphones become more ubiquitous, shoppers using mobile to aid in purchasing has become more prevalent.   According to a 2013 Columbia Business School study, 23 percent of Americans shop with their phones while in-store. The demographics of “M-Shoppers,” as they are called, are split evenly across gender and age, urban and rural, and all income levels. In short, everybody is doing it and the number of people doing it is on rise.

Once upon a time, retailers feared showrooming—the consumer trend of researching products in brick-and-mortar stores and then finding and buying them online—so much so that in December 2010, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Phone Wielding Shoppers Strike Fear Into Retailers.” The story quotes market analysts foreboding the end of brick-and-mortar retail as they knew it. At around the time the article was published, Best Buy, which the media had begun to herald a “showroom for Amazon,” blamed dips in its sales on this phenomenon.

But retailers’ attitude towards shoowrooming has flipped 180 degrees since then.  Best Buy, for example, boasts its free Wi-Fi connection to customers on signage posted in-store, encouraging guests to connect to the Internet while shopping. So why the change?

Customers Are Hungry for Information, So Feed Them

The aforementioned Columbia findings confirmed what savvy, early-adopter Wi-Fi retailers figured out years before the study. Consumers are searching for product information just as much as they are comparing prices. More importantly, consumers reported using the store’s own Web site 70 percent of the time in their search. Additionally, they used the store’s app 42 percent of the time for that purpose. This presents a huge opportunity for stores to engage a real, live potential sale already on the premise.

Also, with the rise in 3G and 4G mobile connections, they have conceded that customers will use their mobiles in-store no matter what. A smart retailer knows that granting access to a Wi-Fi network and providing a superior browsing experience without data expenditures gives customers one more reason to come back to the store. That’s a baseline value-add proposition any retailer should be able to identify.

 Tips for Engaging In-Store Mobile Shoppers

A retailer can engage customers via mobile any number of ways. Here are a few simple techniques for doing so:

  • Upon accessing a retailer’s Wi-Fi network, make sure the network is programmed to automatically direct customers to the store’s home page when logging on.
  • Place in-store discounts and coupons front and center on the mobile Web site.
  • Change promotions daily.
  • Offer shoppers additional rewards for checking in on social media sites like Facebook, Foursquare, and Yelp –but be sure to review terms of service for customer engagement for each site. Facebook, for example, has rules governing promotions and page content.
  • Make sure customers are aware of Wi-Fi by posting notices on window clings, digital and on-shelf signage, social media sites, or buttons on customer-facing staff.

Planning for Retail Wi-Fi Deployment

Deploying a Wi-Fi network in a retail space is becoming more straightforward thanks to modern business-grade wireless local area network (WLAN) devices that offer all-in-one networking solutions with the user in mind.  With the right planning and equipment, retailers are able to set up and maintain a secure Wi-Fi network for their customers.

Here are a few tips to get started:

  • Make sure your Internet service provider is aware that your retail business intends to offer free Wi-Fi. This will ensure there is sufficient bandwidth to accommodate customers’ browsing.
  • Survey the retail space and environment for WLAN deployment. There are likely to be multiple factors that can impede Wi-Fi transmission, such as:
    • Devices operating on the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency range, such as Bluetooth equipment, microwaves, or garage door openers.
    • Areas where there is standing water, such as fountains, aquariums, or piping.
    • Walls made of heavy materials like concrete and steel rebar.
    • Highly reflective materials such as large mirrors or one-way glass.
  • Determine where customers will be accessing Wi-Fi. Place access points in heavily trafficked areas to keep browsing speeds up during times of high volume.

Also, keep in mind Payment card industry (PCI) rules for retailers accepting credit or debit card purchases state that in-store Wi-Fi must be networked separately from the point of sale (PoS) machines that process them.

Retailers are liable for the security of their customers’ card information, which is why it is imperative that businesses are as vigilant as possible for threats to their network data.  This makes network security features just as important as performance when selecting WLAN hardware for a retail business.

To address enterprise security needs, many business grade access points have built-in firewall features with robust anti-malware, intrusion prevention, content/URL filtering, and application control capabilities which can be controlled by a mobile device, tablet, laptop, or PC. Modern devices have configuration wizards that guide users through typical setup scenarios, and synchronized maintenance processes that consolidate security operations. This helps users minimize the time and resources needed to operate a secure network.

Whether free Wi-Fi is offered as a simple value-add, or it is used to engage customers and track their behavior, now is the time for retailers to take advantage of the growing number of consumers engaging in mobile shopping while in-store. It is a win-win scenario.

Photo by Charleston’s TheDigitel, taken from Flickr Creative Commons.
Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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