Millions of shoppers will navigate retail aisles this month in search of holiday gifts, many with smartphones in hand — ready to search for reviews, deals and offers before picking their presents. It might seem like a no-brainer for retailers to make a solid in-store Wi-Fi connection a priority in an era of mobile dominance. In reality, however, many have struggled to catch up to consumer Wi-Fi expectations and to take advantage of the growing number of ways Wi-Fi can help them connect with customers.
According to IHL Group’s 2015 Store Infrastructure Study, “The Impact of Store Networks and Wi-Fi on Customer Experience,” only 40 percent of retailers have an up-to-date Wi-Fi infrastructure. However, another 48 percent of retailers plan to upgrade their offering in the next three years — so it’s clear that retailers have begun to see the huge potential of the technology.
“Over the past two years, the conversation about Wi-Fi has gone beyond people saying ‘It’s nice to have, but I don’t know what to do with it,’” says Sebastian Andreatta, co-founder of Kiana Analytics, which uses Wi-Fi “fingerprints” from customer smartphones to detect customer presence and track customer location and movements. “Now, the conversation is more about, ‘I need to have this.’”
Traditionally, retailers installed Wi-Fi to streamline inventory tracking using wireless devices. But today, both consumers and retailers want more: Consumers want to check reviews online or share product photos. Retailers have mobile apps they want customers to use in the store, but they can’t count on the 4G signal to be good enough to download and use the app. “That can create more frustration for consumers, who don’t want to wait more than a few seconds,” says Ricardo Belmar, retail technology expert for Hughes, a wireless systems and services provider. “When customers go into the store they have a baseline for what they think an experience should be when connected to WI-FI, based on their cable internet service at home.” In addition, he says, consumers expect a secure, protected connection.
[ Related: Cinnabon seeks customer insights to boost stickiness]
The biggest retail benefits from Wi-Fi come not from an open guest network but one where customers need to opt-in to the in-store Wi-Fi and, in exchange for a special offer, share some information, such as a Facebook profile, an email address or a phone number. These are several ways retailers can win big this season with a robust opt-in, in-store Wi-Fi network:
1. Wi-Fi helps support mobile-equipped associates
Bloomingdale’s store in Palo Alto, Calif., which opened in the fall of 2014, provides all associates with a mobile device to help them assist shoppers — they can provide information about product availability; call, email or text customers; and complete transactions. According to the IHL Group study, providing associates with Wi-Fi has a strong impact on sales and loyalty: Forty-eight percent of retailers reported that giving employees Wi-Fi access boosted shopper loyalty, resulting in a 3.4 percent increase in sales.
“Wi-Fi is an infrastructure enabler — so software service providers are offering interesting options for sales associates to give them information about loyalty program members, about individuals entering the store, and about what customers purchase,” says Andreatta. “The next step is giving associates information before they approach a customer, such as alerting the associate that a customer has arrived or that they interacted with that customer the last time they were in the store.”
2. Wi-Fi helps identify traffic patterns and dwell times throughout the store
As the cost of Wi-Fi installation has dropped and the capability to manage services has improved, rolling out new Wi-Fi access points is now easy, says Andreatta, allowing retailers to use the technology to identify and understand traffic patterns in a store — which can result in useful insights. By tracking a customer’s phone as it moves through the store, retailers can gather data that helps determine peak traffic behaviors, conversion rates and dwell times in the stores. Stores can use analyze the results to help plan or reconfigure store layouts and merchandise displays.
Sometimes the insights can be unusual and surprising. For example, Andreatta says, a counter-based mall bakery put Wi-Fi access points near their POS terminals to understand how often customers came to the counter. They found that franchises were turning off their ovens too early for the number of customers arriving at key hours, leading to missed opportunities to attract customers with the smell of freshly-baked bread.
3. Wi-Fi and beacon integration can increase engagement
As consumers have become accustomed to receiving highly relevant alerts, coupons and promotions based on what they are researching online, they have come to expect the same, if not better, experience in the store, says Suzanne Dickson, senior global product marketing manager, WLAN, Zebra Technologies. By integrating wireless access points and the resulting analytics or loyalty program data with the “micro locationing” of Bluetooth-enabled beacons, consumers can receive timely, customized alerts/promotions to their devices, as well as marketing games/contests to increase the in-store engagement and excitement.
[ Related: 6 tips for a better mobile retail experience]
For example, this Thanksgiving Macy’s launched a “Walk in and Win” game on its mobile app. In over 700 stores, shoppers at more than 700 Macy’s stores with the retailer’s mobile app were given the chance to instantly win prizes, through push notifications triggered by their proximity through beacons placed throughout the store. “Aside from motivating users to download the app for the game, this contest inherently promoted their loyalty program and mobile app which can be used on all return visits,” says Dickson.
Easy, fast, user-friendly onboarding is key for Wi-Fi
A robust, in-store Wi-Fi network offers a variety of opportunities, but it’s essential that customer access is pain-free. “There needs to be an easy, fast, and user-friendly onboarding process, so the guest can access Wi-Fi worry-free without burdening an IT department,” says Dickson, adding that while the busy holiday shopping season is the best time to take advantage of Wi-Fi’s powerful potential, retailers have to overcome many challenges, including the possibility of downtime. “Retailers have to minimize or eliminate any network downtime that can impact business-critical apps,” she says.
The bottom line, say experts, is that the benefits of Wi-Fi — in terms of data collection, analytics, marketing messages and personalized offers — are well worth the effort. However, retailers must work hard to ensure customers aren’t disappointed in their experience, or, worse, that it becomes a negative experience they share with others. “Consumers want to know that if they connect to the store’s Wi-Fi experience, that nothing bad is going to happen on their device,” says Belmar.