Debenhams announced today that it will be providing free wi-fi in partnership with O2, in all of its 167 stores. 

The wi-fi coverage will allow customers to access information about products, view reviews, order out of stock items, and receive discount vouchers straight to their mobiles. 

This is a smart move from Debenhams, and one which addresses the threat of mobile use in store and turns it to the retailer’s advantage. 

The use of mobile for offline price comparison

The use of mobiles by customers in stores does present a challenge for retailers. More and more people have smartphones (and tablets)and are able to use them to check prices and view reviews while shopping on the high street. 

Stats from a Toluna/Econsultancy multichannel retail survey last year show that 18.5% of UK and 20% of US shoppers have used their phones to compare prices while in a store, a trend which will only increase: 

Debenhams wi-fi

While retailers may be fearful of this trend, since mobile apps from brands like Amazon threaten to take business away from the high street, it’s something that must be addressed. 

Debenham’s will use O2 wi-fi, something trialled by House of Fraser last Christmas, to allow customers to carry out a range of activities in store.

They can scan a product using the barcode scanner on its Android and iPhone apps to access further details about products, as well as ordering out of stock items for home delivery. 

In addition, customers can send pictures of items to friends for a second opinion, while phones can be used to access store layouts. This wi-fi can also be used to target customers with offers and discount vouchers while in store, a potentially powerful tool for the retailer. 

Debenhams’ forward-thinking mobile strategy has been very effective so far, with one million downloads of its apps and 250,000 barcode scans in store. 20% of the retailer’s online traffic now comes from mobile devices. 

Debenhams App-03 qr

By launching apps across different platforms, and adding the crucial barcode scanning function to its apps, the retailer has laid the foundations for this move. 

Why other retailers should follow suit

The use of mobiles as an offline shopping companion will continue to grow, and retailers need to embrace this trend rather than ignoring it. In fact, it offers retailers an opportunity to improve the in-store experience and bring some advantages of online into stores. 

For example, the ability to access online reviews and opinion more easily can actually work as a sales driver for instore customers, while accessing extra product detail could also push shoppers towards a purchase. 

The key is to ensure that, as far as possible, customers are using your mobile sites or apps and can find all the information they need. This way, they are less likely to use competitor’s apps, which may tempt them to make a purchase elsewhere. 

The point of providing wi-fi is that it ensures that a shopper’s mobile experience in store is as good as it can be, avoiding the frustration of variable 3G signals. 

Providing mobile internet in stores is a great move by Debenhams, and I’m sure it won’t be the last to do so.