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Should Retailers Promote Free Wi-Fi?

November 6, 2013

A slew of recent stories warn shoppers that retailers are using Wi-Fi to spy on them. Yet a number of surveys underscore the benefits consumers see by receiving free Wi-Fi access in retail stores.

A new survey of more than 1,500 smartphone owners from Acquity Group, a digital marketing agency, found that 50 percent of smartphone owners would feel more confident making a major purchase with the ability to research in store. Wi-Fi access would make mobile users 30 percent more likely to browse additional items not on their list, and 20 percent more likely to stay longer in store, according to the survey. Having Wi-Fi would also support the 46 percent who would make more purchases online if there were a more consistent user experience across all channels.

"In-store Wi-Fi not only allows retailers to keep consumers in store longer, making them more likely to purchase, but also helps tie in the consistent user experience across channels that today's consumers expect," said Chip Knicker, vice president of e-commerce at Acquity Group, in a statement.

A study from Gigaom Research earlier this year in the same positive vein found that Wi-Fi-enabled stores could reward customers with personalized offers, deliver mobile ads that trigger purchases, and capture valuable business intelligence to fine-tune staffing, merchandising, and inventories.

While many of the majors — including Target, Macy's, Best Buy, Nordstrom, Sam's Club, Sears as well as many grocers — have added Wi-Fi access over the last few years, few are loudly promoting the benefit as part of the omni-channel experience.

The apparent reluctance to broadcast or roll out the service comes as a number of stories have arrived this year that point to how Wi-Fi networks are enabling stores to pinpoint where shoppers are within a store, how frequently they shop the store, which websites they visit, and other data that have led to privacy concerns.

An article in Mobile Commerce Daily earlier this year exploring the hesitation to roll out or hype "free Wi-Fi" indicated it was likely due to a belief that consumers will use it purely to comparison shop. Also, stores are still not looking at Wi-Fi "holistically to marry in-store and digital marketing efforts."

In-store prompts, including QR codes, bar codes and SMS opt-in and app download tied to deals, should be used in conjunction with Wi-Fi "to create and extend the shopping experience and grow revenue and purchasing," Michael Della Penna, SVP of emerging channels at Responsys, told Mobile Commerce Daily.

Other challenges to Wi-Fi include the staffing costs to keep the network functioning as well as the challenges in determining ROI for an area typically controlled by IT departments.

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