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Offering free wi-fi in stores means that customers can use their mobile or tablet devices without any frustrating connection issues.

It is most commonly seen in coffee shops and restaurants, but there are strong arguments for offering this in retail stores, and many retailers are going down this route. 

In this extract from our How the Internet Can Save the High Street report, I look at the arguments for retailers to provide mobile internet access for customers. 

Why offer wi-fi?

This is a relatively new innovation, and may seem counterintuitive at first, but retailers such as Debenhams and Tesco are beginning to roll this service out in their stores.

Some retailers may be concerned about the threat of mobile comparison - and Amazon's excellent mobile apps do present a challenge - but this is a trend that needs to be embraced as there are more pros than cons. 

Customers are going to use mobiles in store anyway, and this is an upward trend. In the UK 43% of respondents said they had used their mobile to compare prices and look at product reviews while out shopping, up from 19% in 2011. .

As with purchasing on mobile, the likelihood to have researched price information and reviews increases among younger respondents.

Q. Have you used your mobile to compare prices and look at product reviews while out shopping?

In conjunction with in-store prompts like QR codes and barcodes, and with the retailer’s mobile app, wi-fi can be used to improve the in-store experience for mobile users.

Retailers attempting to resist this trend are akin to King Canute. Whatever they do, customers will increasingly use their mobiles to check prices, look for reviews, and find more detailed product information.

Retailers can harness this trend and turn it to their advantage by using mobile to enhance the level of information available to customers.

For example, they could prompt customers to visit web pages with reviews of the products they are considering in store. This could be a powerful driver of sales.

Why do customers find in-store wi-fi useful?

3G mobile internet connections can vary in quality, and users have to eat into their data allowances to use them in store. Customers will appreciate free and good quality wi-fi that allows them to carry out their product research in store.

Wi-fi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers. In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network.

Tesco recently introduced this in its larger stores. It does require a slightly clunky registration process that involves entering Clubcard numbers, but the retailer is then armed with your purchase history. If Tesco can sweeten this process with a discount or two, it may well be worth the effort.

According to an OnDeviceResearch survey, 74% of respondents would be happy for a retailer to send a text or email with promotions while they’re using in-store wi-fi.

House of Fraser recently ran a promotion in conjunction with O2, using free wi-fi, that aimed to drive incremental sales in the run up to Christmas. Meanwhile, John Lewis recently added wi-fi to its stores. It’s an emerging trend among the major high street brands (not to mention the coffee shops).

Mobile can be used to enhance the in-store experience for consumers, as well as providing retailers with some precision tools to target the mobile customer.

A blend of location and personalisation can make life easier for customers, while allowing retailers to target customers with relevant offers and recommendations.

As we saw with the Casino example in this post, an iPhone app allows users to compile shopping lists before heading to the store, where they can use their mobile to scan and pay for items in store. This is useful for the customer, but also provides the retailer with a wealth of information about the customer's preferences and shopping habits.

Combine this with technology like Tesco's in-store 'sat nav' app and you have the ability to target customers in real time, according to their location.

Let's say the customer is entering the dairy aisle. They bought a particular brand of butter last week, and there's an offer on that this week. Tesco could notify them and point out that the product is a mere five yards away from where they’re standing. This will be the future of retail, for those customers who opt in.

Customers already have the smartphone and tablet technology in their bags and pockets that makes this kind of thing possible, it's just a question of adapting to it and making it easier for them to use their mobiles in-store by providing wi-fi.

Does providing free wi-fi work for retailers?

Providing in store wi-fi and using it for in-store promotions is relatively new, but Debenhams has just rolled it out in all of its UK stores, which suggests that there is something in it.

This is something we're keen to see more data on, so if you'd like to share your results with us, please leave a comment. 

Tips for providing free wi-fi

Make it easy for users to log in

Some free wi-fi services have long registration processes, which can ask for far too much information, and take too long. Remember that people are using a small screen and will have limited patience with a poor experience.

It’s fair enough to ask for some data from customers, but don’t go overboard.

Advertise it to shoppers

Wi-fi can be a draw for customers, and if you're looking to get customers to use their mobiles, then make sure they know they can get online. 

For example, we reviewed Sainsbury's in-store scan and go app yesterday, and commented that the retailer should provide wi-fi to improve the user experience. 

In fact, it was pointed out to us that wi-fi was available, but you have to ask a member of staff for the password. This isn't the way to do it. 

Provide prompts for mobile users

Part of the reason for providing free wi-fi is to allow users to do what they would do anyway, i.e. check prices and read reviews online.

Therefore, providing barcodes or QR codes to scan next to products, or prompts to download apps may help to ensure that they check reviews and look for product information on your app or site, not Amazon’s.

Provide special offers

This may be in the form of codes to scan to unlock specials like free coffee or discounts, or to send prompts to user’s phones highlighting new products and promotions.

Should retailers offer free wi-fi? What are the pros and cons? Please let us know below...

Graham Charlton

Published 20 November, 2012 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (25)

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Emma North

Emma North, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai

I agree that the benefits to retailers of offering free WiFi outweigh the drawbacks. We are in an age of technology, where consumers have more control over their purchasing decisions than ever before. Retailers should embrace this fact and give customers the freedom to shop in-store the same way they might choose to shop at home online. And given that there is a strong and rare chance that users will actually volunteer their details for the privilege, it presents new marketing opportunities in return.

almost 4 years ago

James Gurd

James Gurd, Owner at Digital JugglerSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Graham,

Thanks for the post.

I think giving free WifI is great customer service. For some brands it will be more beneficial than others. Take the example of large department stores/supermarkets with in-store cafe/restaurant - free Wifi gives shoppers the chance to browse products, access in-store offers, compare prices etc whilst they relax.

You're right that sign-up should be easy but I think as customers we should be willing to provide some info in exchange for a free service. The move by Tesco to capture Clubcard info is essential for its CRM program - they can target relevant offers to each customer based on purchase history.

The key thing is providing something useful and relevant (e.g. alerts on discounts, summary of latest offers). If you can do that and make it obvious to people what they are getting, then I think the majority would be willing to go through a registration process.

cheers
james

almost 4 years ago

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Michael Maxwell

I think free wifi in store is a must for any large retailer;

i) offers a better customer experience
ii) soon will be considered a hygiene factor by user
iii) opportunity for retailed to capture customer data

I was recently in NY and surprised at the lack of wifi available compared to London

almost 4 years ago

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

Hi Graham

Nice post.

Yes, wi-fi should be freely available. The sooner all retailers accept the new 'showrooming' reality, the better. Once that happens they can begin to get more creative with their in-store tactics.

I read this morning of a plan for floor walkers to engage with those staring at their mobiles in store, ask if they're comparing prices and see if they can close a sale.

Might not be well received by some shoppers, but handled in the right way it's an interesting potential high street retail tactic for sure.

Cheers,
Mark.

almost 4 years ago

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Ketharaman Swaminathan

One digital marketing / usability guidance we provide to our clients is "Do as much as possible on behalf of your customers, just tell them you're doing so". Applied to the Tesco WiFi registration process, this would translate to the following: (1) Pick up the phone's # (2) Pull out customer name and ClubCard# from CRM (3) Prefill these details in the WiFi registration form with the preamble "according to our records, your name and Clubcard # are shown below" and ask customers to only take the trouble of correcting any incorrect details. This should hopefully eliminate the friction involved in the registration process and boost conversion. On another note, is it legal for retailers providing free WiFi to track the clickstream followed by customers while they're 'showrooming'?

almost 4 years ago

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George, Project Manager at Penna

My local Tesco has it and I stopped using it because the speed was shocking - like a dial-up internet connection circa 1996. And it had an overzealous firewall that blocked certain apps I had running and websites I wanted to browse while in the queue.

If retailers are to offer wi-fi it's got to be noticeably faster than and as open as a 3G service or it's no more than an expensive gimmick.

almost 4 years ago

Gareth Rees

Gareth Rees, Media Portfolio Lead at Personal

There's probably little retailers can do about it, but I personally think a stronger 3G signal would be much more beneficial than in-store WiFi.

In reality, customers would benefit most from quick, easy access to a short and non-data intensive browsing experience. The extended sign in process, even if you have already registered, negates this.

My personal experience has been that my normal browsing has been interrupted when I'm automatically logged into The Cloud WiFi or similar, and data is cut off from the app I might be using at that point in time.

almost 4 years ago

Neale Gilhooley

Neale Gilhooley, MD at Evolution Design

As a customer I love free WiFi as it is so fast, except when the Log IN takes me 4 minutes and involves me typing in my long e-mail address, why, what do they do with it? So agree - Make WiFi easy for users to log in!

I'd suggest that Debenhams have their own store site as the landing page not an 02 page, with a message to 'add to bookmarks'.

If I am in store and it is £4 cheaper in Amazon then I will buy in store on the day every time. It's not just the £4 saving its also the delivery charges and being in to receive it. If I am already instore make it easy for me to select and order.

almost 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@ Gareth - I hate the Cloud. My iPhone automatically logs into it and effectively cuts off my 3G signal. And the sign up process is rubbish.

It may be that 4G will eventually reduce the need for in-store wi-fi, but there is an advantage to both retailers and customers, as long as the sign-in is user friendly.

@George I agree. Crap wi-fi is almost worse than none.

almost 4 years ago

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Andrew Japp

Of course they should and provide the apps to go with it, both for customer use (home delivery, click and collect, brand engagement etc) and more importantly for employees for cutting costs across the supply chain, training, sales support, warehousing and a multitude of other uses.

Only current problems for customers are the log-in procedures which need to be made more intuitive and user friendly on mobile devices.

Stores that don't will only lose out.

almost 4 years ago

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Paul Smith

Some of the points made are so wrong! Look at it from the customer perspective, please.

"3G mobile internet connections can vary in quality, and users have to eat into their data allowances to use them in store. "

* show me any customer who worries about using data allowances to browse the web when what they need to do is more compelling "can I get this product cheaper/faster/better somewhere else?"

"Customers will appreciate free and good quality wi-fi that allows them to carry out their product research in store."

* Perhaps but not if

"Wi-fi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers."

Please provide the evidence for this..
"In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network."

Shops without an internet connection run a basic risk - that if someone can't see if they can get a better deal in store, they will walk out and check as soon as they get outside. Put simply, you've lost the customer.

So the customer benefits of wi-fi in store are that they have instant reassurance that they are making a good buying decision at the time of purchase. If that it at the cost of registering for wi-fi, for signing up for an app, for downloading an app etc etc it won't happen. These are all barriers to the decision-making process. Shops that help this make decision making better leading for the customer - the marketers job is to provide online reassurance that they should "buy now". eg giving them customer reviews etc etc.

almost 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Paul Yes, making sure they are getting the best deal may be more compelling for consumers than saving some of their data allowance, but this doesn't mean they wouldn't appreciate free wi-fi which is faster than 3G.

Also, some research suggests that customers are happy to receive promotional messages in return for free wifi: http://ondeviceresearch.com/blog/can-mobile-save-high-street-from-online-competition

There is, of course, a point at which the sign up becomes too annoying and this is a balance that retailers have to get right. But, having signed up, there are benefits for retailer and consumer.

almost 4 years ago

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Jordan McClements

Sorry - I just don't believe the figures are indicative of the UK population as a whole.

Be honest - how many people do you know over 55 that have a smart phone?

How many people over 55 who actually have a smart phone really know how to use it (or know the difference between wifi and 3g)?

How many people over 55 who have one and know how to use it regularly use it to compare prices and read product reviews while out shopping?

I bet you a bazillion pounds it's far far less than 16% of over 55's in the UK.

I'm not saying mobile isn't important. It is. But everyone is over hyping just how important it is at this very minute in time...

My 2 pence...

almost 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Jordan The 16% stat comes from an online survey, and therefore does skew towards the more tech-savvy over 55. That said, I don't think all over 55s are afraid of technology. In fact, those that do have smartphones are probably a group worth targeting.

Even if over 55s weren't using smartphones to compare prices in stores, the rest of the demographic groups are well worth targeting.

I'd say mobile is very important right now, and it's only going to grow. If retailers can capture sales from smartphone users (who are more likely to have cash to spend), then I'd say it's worth the price of providing wi-fi.

almost 4 years ago

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Helen Stonehouse

Yes I agree retailers should offer free WiFi which is more reliable than 3G and shops/stores that don't provide it will potentially miss out and go somewhere that does! Eveyone expects it these days.
We offer a new Purple WiFi which is a social WiFi that sits on top of existing internet connections and allows customers and staff to connect to free WiFi but only after they have given the company a facebook like or a follow on twitter. Retailers then have access to data from WiFi users which businesses can utilise to their advantage, don't forget these customers are true customers who have most likely shopped there before and will probably respond positively to any marketing/promotional communication. purplewifi.net

almost 4 years ago

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Clerkendweller

Just a reminder, but make sure any customer WiFi is not connected to sales-floor and back-office systems, and is not the same as any WiFi used by staff.

Review your liability for actions taken by users of the WiFi, and also how to reduce the risk to your customers from similarly-named spoof access points.

almost 4 years ago

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Georgia Leybourne, Marketing Director - International at Manhattan Associates

Such an emotive topic. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Retailers have no choice but to cater for their customers' every desire or they will lose them so fast. They need a great looking store full of gorgeous stock and savvy sales people, they need an online presence that rocks in this digital age and they need a supply chain that supports the ever changing demands of the customer and is agile enough to respond when that customer goes online in store to 'showroom' .... very topical!

almost 4 years ago

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Geoffrey Igharo

This article offers an interesting point of view. However, I think it falls flat because it contradicts a key principle of retail: be a curator, not a clerk.

Your job as a retailer is to provide a cohesive and satisfying "stage" experience, there and then. Inject some excitement into the buying experience, help the customer focus and understand the value of the products you have carefully chosen to offer them. Strip noise and highlighting value.

It's 2012: if someone has come to your store, they came for some added value - after all, they could have gone online and bought the item in less time than it would have taken them to travel to you. And what's your value added, in return for the time the customer has invested in coming to your "stage"? Sending them back online?

For me, every minute and every penny you spend on sideshows such as free wi-fi adds up to resources and creativity that you didnt invest in providing a better in-store experience.

When the customer is walking around in your store, your labelling and signage - in-store presentation commands an incredible amount of attention. So, if you believe the customer needs information - why are you forcing them to trawl google on a 3 inch screen? Why not anticipate and provide that information- better and more relevantly than they could have done in a google search? For example, what is the most information can you provide about the product based on your own expertise? Could you summarize user reviews or product attributes? Is there more context around the product that you are ideally positioned to provide?

You need to add value to the buying experience in some way. And if you can't manage that, then seriously consider whether there is actually any role for you in retailing the products. Harsh, but IMO true.

almost 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Geoffrey I disagree. I think offering wi-fi can enhance the in-store experience for mobile users.

It doesn't just have to be about price comparison. Mobile can be used to provide further information which helps the customer to understand the value of the products they are viewing - linking to product pages, reviews, videos etc.

It isn't just about sending them back online, it's about using the web to help the customer to make a purchase there and then.

Also, wi-fi doesn't have to take so much time and money that it detracts from providing a better in-store experience. Indeed, it can be part of that enhanced experience.

Stores shouldn't be sending users to Google. Ideally, the use of wi-fi should be accompanied by a dedicated app or mobile website, so the shopper isn't open to distractions via Google or other retailers' sites.

The bottom line is that customers are using mobiles in store, for price comparison, reviews etc. Retailers can't stop it, and the best tactic is to embrace this and make the most of it.

almost 4 years ago

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Charles Smith

The fact that consumers have so many choices now, what retailers can do to differentiate themselves is to make the customer experience of shopping as easy and convenient as possible. I think a key point was made about adding value to the buying experience.

almost 4 years ago

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Geoffrey Igharo

Graham, what I'm saying is if you are doing your job as a merchant correctly, then the live stage itself should contain the guidance the customer needs.

For example, this article contains an example of sending the in-store customer to a web page containing reviews. But the customer doesnt want a web page in and of itself- they want guidance to a decision - and since the at point of purchase they need it condensed. I dont think the preference is to squint at a 3 inch screen at that moment.

Why not instead synthesise the essence of those reviews onto for example the shelf label and keep the in-store experience flowing and more powerful than going one step back to online and the search engine?

I dont think there is any question about the power of online retailing - but if physical stores dont push the envelope on the in-person store experience over and above the digital aspects, then they are misusing the channel.

almost 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@ Geoffrey I do think many stores could do more to sell products with better information at the shelf. Given the popularity and power of online reviews, it does seem a good idea to bring these into the store.

I like, for example, the way that Majestic Wines shows reviews of some of its bottles at the point of sale.

The point of wi-fi, and of having your own mobile site or app is that customers aren't sent to a search engine, but to the retailer's own product /landing pages.

A significant number are using mobiles in store already and the retailer has to adapt to this. While a better general in-store experience would be welcome, mobile can play a big part in this.

It's not just about price comparison, it could be using mobile to deliver vouchers and product recommendations for customers, or to make their shopping experience easier.

For example, Sainsbury's Scan and Go app, though flawed at the moment, aims to take some of the pain out of grocery shopping by letting customers scan with their app as they shop.

http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/11129-sainsbury-s-scan-go-mobile-app-is-too-slow

It may also depend on the type of store. If I'm entering a luxury store (not that I do too often), then I'll expect a more personal service. However, in PC World, John Lewis or somewhere, I'd rather be able to find the information I need without having to ask.

almost 4 years ago

Oliver Ewbank

Oliver Ewbank, Digital Marketing Manager at Koozai

I think all retailers should offer in store wi fi as it can encourage sales. People are going to compare prices online no matter what but if you make the process easier then customers will have a better shopping experience. This could be better for the long term.

over 3 years ago

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Rob Thurner

Excellent post, thank you Graham. In-store wi-fi is a winner for consumers and brands.

This is a timely reminder for the retailers and shopping mall operators out there who are still prevaricating over wi-fi installation.

I think it comes down to weighing up the capex investment against a better shopper experience afforded by wi-fi,, meaning more footfall, more time in-store and increased spend.

A retailer I interviewed last week told me he sees shoppers backing out the store when they lose Internet signal on their handsets. This is a telling signal.

over 3 years ago

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John Alexander

In store wi-fi absolutely, or even ensuring there is wi-fi coverage outside your store so that you can give customers or prospective customers reason to linger a while and visit your store.

Should other high st retailers be providing the coffee shop wi-fi? Afterall all they can hope to sell you is another coffee, the neighbouring retailer can promote / push / nudge you to call in. Or maybe the on-line retailers should do so - stay here enjoy another coffee and shop on-line rather than walk any further.

As for a supermarket reminding me that i'm only 5m from what i bought last week - no thank you, can you imagine how irritating that would be even before you get past the fruit and veg. A good reason to switch that particular app off.

over 3 years ago

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