By David Fenner

Recent research has found that nearly 70 per cent of Australian consumers walk into stores with a smartphone in hand. Many of these customers are prepared to comment on service with an instantaneous tweet, a forum post, an Instagram disaster pic – you name the problem, and consumers are more than happy to discuss it with the world.

The same study found that 94 per cent of private smartphone owners in Australia have researched a product or service on their phone, with 20 per cent having done so while in-store.
It has never been more important for retailers to provide an effective, secure and consistent wireless service in-store. Fortunately, it’s also never been easier to actually design and install one.

The mobility ideal – moving decision-making from behind a desk to the point of activity in-store – has been around for a while now and increasingly we are seeing employees becoming free from their desktops and shop counters. Functions such as stock control or price markdown, reducing errors and increasing productivity, have all become mobile in recent years, initially taking advantage of a small data-per-transaction total, and a limited number of users accessing the network.

Retailers originally built wireless networks to cater for low amounts of data usage, but as more functions became mobile they soon had to allow for more bandwidth-hungry applications such as voice and video.

These changes were at first relatively easy to accommodate, since the retailer – in conjunction with the IT department – was able to control access to the network and maintain security, with very little risk of unwanted access to secret corporate information.

But the mobile boom occurred, and with it the environment changed. Suddenly everyone wanted to access data on the go, irrespective of their location or how bandwidth-hungry the data was.

Mobile networks could at first keep up with the demand, but sudden changes in social behaviour led by the quick adoption of ‘smart’ devices meant that providers soon fell behind in supplying the type of connectivity customers grew to expect, and demand.

Thankfully, the ability to share the growing load on the network between cellular and Wi-Fi networks has become feasible. Smart devices have adapted to the changed environment and can now switch between available connections as required.

A well-designed Wi-Fi network provides customers with the experience they expect. But more importantly, it will provide the retailer with valuable information on their customers that they can use to increase customer loyalty and the ability of staff to close the sale right there on the floor.

With a properly designed network, retailers can access information to determine the movements and locations of customers in-store, leading to the ability to ascertain the areas in the store most frequently visited, those that might need more attention to attract customers, and even the most commonly-researched products.

Collecting and using personal information from customers has long been a staple for online retailers to provide personalised recommendations, while brick-and-mortar stores have in the past been left to determine shopping habits purely through data from sales and loyalty cards – hardly as accurate as mining Google for searches.

But stores are catching up quickly. By integrating their online and in-store operations, they’re increasing their knowledge of customers through a greater breadth of accumulated data and a greater understanding of the analytics required to make sense of it all.

For example, when a woman logs onto a department store’s Wi-Fi network, the system sees that she has purchased a video game in each of her last three visits and sends a coupon for 25 per cent off her next gaming purchase. A store associate sees that a customer is a keen fisherman and directs him to the latest shipment of baits.

Another very recent development in retail Wi-Fi environments has been secure guest authentication. This ensures continuous wireless connectivity for customers, while you collect the in-store data you need to improve each customer experience.

Guests can sign into the Wi-Fi network using their social media login from sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn, or they can use the store’s custom mobile application for a simple, self-service and intuitive one-time process.  And on future visits, registered shoppers will be automatically authenticated.

Wi-Fi makes sense because nothing says more about your dedication to your customers than showing them an experience that is personalised and informative. It’s going back to the future in a sense, using technology to revert to the good old days when ‘Mike’ walked into the store and was greeted with a ‘hey Mike’.

The key enabler of all this is technology, and in particular a Wi-Fi network which provides a fuller  experience for the customer in-store than they can get online.  

David Fenner is the manager of retail solutions at Motorola Solutions Australia and New Zealand.