As more in-store services move online, Rebecca Thomson looks at whether retailers will need to invest in providing free customer Wi-Fi

The biggest names in retail are now making serious inroads into the online world and, at the same time, the offline and online channels are converging. Customers are using smartphones to gain information on products just before they buy. Some retailers, meanwhile, are keen to allow them to order online if something is out of stock in-store. The benefits are clear for both camps, but the emerging services need the infrastructure to support them and retailers will need to invest in Wi-Fi to maximise sales opportunities.

Why invest in Wi-Fi?

  • Increasingly, customers – with the possible exception of value store customers – will expect the service
  • Many multichannel strategies include use of online ordering if a particular store has a product out of stock – Wi-Fi could increase online sales in-store
  • Customers often want to compare products online before buying – mobile phones can assist them in the buying process
  • It could enable staff to take payment using mobile point-of-sale devices anywhere in the store, as well as providing customers with information

Something in the air

Providing free customer Wi-Fi won’t be a huge expense but it’s not one that any business is keen to incur unless it’s worth it. The need for Wi-Fi is likely to depend on future plans - some retailers may not be interested in providing the services that make it a necessity.

But with UK 3G networks being somewhat patchy and phone signals inside big box stores or shopping malls even worse, those interested in in-store mobile and online services will need it if mobile and multichannel services are to be a major part of service and sales. As Macy’s chief marketing officer Peter Sachse predicted at the National Retail Federation (NRF) conference earlier this year: “If you don’t have Wi-Fi in your stores, in future people won’t walk in.”

Some retailers already provide in-store access to their own websites on tablets or computers, but a range of newer services will require store-wide internet access.

Barcode scanning apps are available at retailers such as Tesco, allowing customers to get information on products by scanning them with a mobile phone. There is the potential to go one step further and use these apps as one part of an entirely mobile transaction process - scanning the goods, then paying for them using a secure payment app downloaded onto the phone.

Personalised point-of-sale marketing could be published on the customer’s phone by trawling their purchasehistory and making recommendations. In the social network realm, Facebook’s Deals service, launched in January, aims to provide customers with offers from retailers that they receive based on which store they’re near. The opportunities probably outnumber the real world examples at the moment, and it’s yet to be seen which services will take off, but all these developments will need Wi-Fi.

Tesco and O2 are both early adopters of Wi-Fi. Tesco is already rolling it out across its stores. Speaking at NRF,its chief executive of retailing services and group strategy director Andrew Higginson said: “People now shopcompletely seamlessly between internet and stores. For those who get it right and make life easier for customers, it’s a great opportunity.” Meanwhile, by April this year, O2 will have rolled out a free Wi-Fi service to 450 of its stores. O2 managing director Gavin Franks expects the move to increase loyalty and engage new customers.

Good business sense

BT Expedite chief technology officer Steve Thomas says: “If retailers want to encourage their customers to use their smartphone application in store, free Wi-Fi makes good business sense.” He says shoppers using store Wi-Fi will need to pass through the retailer’s own home page, providing an easy and effective way to push promotions, and that anonymous data can be collected on the other sites they visit, giving an idea of the kind of site that works in a store environment. He adds that free Wi-Fi will be useful in generating footfall during the Olympics - foreign visitors hate high roaming charges, making Wi-Fi-enabled shops enticing.

Aurora Fashions group IT director John Bovill says the widespread implementation of Wi-Fi in retail stores is inevitable. “We are rolling it out in full to our stores. The key factor is making sure it’s secure and making sure you’re protecting your data and customer transactions. It’s relatively cheap to roll out and fairly cheap to run once it’s in.”

With many multichannel services still in development, free Wi-Fi may not necessarily be required right away, but it’s likely to be crucial in making many retailers truly cross-channel. However, it’s certainly something customers will appreciate, and satisfying the ever-increasing demands of the multichannel shopper is becoming an ever-challenging retail priority.