Written by Dave Adams
Wireless internet access has become a near universal expectation. But although public buildings, cafes, pubs and indeed whole communities and city centres have launched WiFi facilities at various points since the late 90s, retailers have not usually been among them.
That may now be changing as two trends converge: retailers’ staff using wireless technologies for administration, customer service and/or payment; and an ever increasing number of consumers using their own mobile devices to research products in-store. More than four out of 10 (42 per cent) of smartphone users compare prices on their phones in store, with 13 per cent then heading off to buy products more cheaply elsewhere, according to 2012 research conducted for Tradedoubler by Forrester in the UK, France, Germany and Sweden.
That’s more of a concern for some retailers than for others of course, but it also highlights the potential opportunities for retailers who can engage consumers directly through their mobile devices in the store. In addition to offering enhanced customer service and delivering special offers and promotions, retailers could also gain useful intelligence about consumer behaviour, suggests Sara Birch, mobility specialist at Kcom. They could use it to assess the effectiveness of a store layout or PoS configuration, for example.
If you’ve been in an Apple store you already seen the kind of retail ‘experience’ possible with wireless – a store without tills, staffed by people who can pluck product information out of the air at will. But most retailers do not have the luxury of being backed by the world’s richest, most iconic technology company. They need to consider the practicalities of what they can do in their own stores, using existing infrastructure if possible.
Plenty of technology vendors have developed solutions that could help, such as the MobileShopper applications from Digipos. But, as with all elements in a multi-channel retailing strategy, the foundation of a successful implementation must be an integrated, well-managed supply chain, says Craig Sears-Black, UK managing director at Manhattan Associates. Obviously, he would say that, but it is hard to disagree. Sears-Black believes consumer expectations are now based in part on the capabilities of online players like Amazon, which can display total visibility of all the products it sells, of what’s in stock and the available delivery options.
“The reason not everybody is able to offer those services is a lack of real time stock visibility,” says Sears-Black. “That’s what will dictate who are winners and who are losers in the next stage of multi-channel retailing. That information is available, somewhere, in the retailer’s systems. It’s just that it hasn’t been made available on a mobile device in the right format.” Sears-Black says Manhattan is helping a number of US retailers, including Ann Taylor and Men’s Wearhouse, as well as sports and homeware stores, to reach that goal, using a new set of solutions from Manhattan’s Mobility Labs.
As ever, he says, the complexity and difficulty this entails is caused by legacy systems. “Is this something most retailers in the UK are going to grasp onto now? No, those infrastructural changes have to come first,” he says. “We have people we’re working with in the UK [for whom] mobile selling and access to store inventory is on the roadmap, but not in the next nine months. Within the next 12 months we would expect these systems to be deployed using Mobility Labs.”
What is happening already on the UK High Street with wireless networks? In August, electronics retailer Maplin launched a free in-store WiFi service with technology provider The Cloud. This allows customers to read product reviews online and discuss purchases via social networks and means Maplin can develop more personalised services, with browsing and shopping histories informing tailored cross-selling and promotions on the branded landing page.
“Our rationale is all about customer service,” says Mark Smith, IT director at Maplin. “Inevitably price comparison will happen, but it’s really about if I, as a consumer, am looking at a wall full of products and am not sure what I want. I have the option of engaging with staff, or I can research and continue to self-serve online, then maybe get staff involved if those answers aren’t clear. I think it’s the way that retail is going: more and more people will do this for their customers. We’ve not really done any research on how it’s gone so far; that’s something we plan to do in the near future. There’s always the potential to extend [the service], but it will be led by what our customers say when we ask ‘what are you using it for – what doesn’t it do that you would like it to do?’”
Other retailers have not yet gone quite so far in terms of allowing customers unfettered internet access. In mid-2012 clothing retailer Reiss began a roll-out of WiFi in its UK and US stores, using Vodat technology. This lets staff use iPads in store to connect to the retailer’s website, to showcase and sell items in its full product range not available in the store. Reiss has said it might allow customers to use the WiFi network “in a controlled manner” in future. It also claims the uplift in incremental sales it has enjoyed as a result means the project will pay for itself in less than six months.
Similar projects are underway at other retailers: last summer, customers of Aurora Fashions, owner of Coast, Oasis, Warehouse and Karen Millen, began trialling a service allowing shoppers and staff to use iPads in-store to access store websites, check stock availability, place orders and take payment. The scheme has now been extended to more stores; and complemented by a new service allowing customers to pay for online purchases in store with a PayPal account.
Kcom’s Sara Birch believes electronics retailers like Maplin and also the big supermarkets are the two groups of retailers most likely to implement WiFi solutions designed to engage customers directly. In October 2012 Sainsbury’s announced the trial of a new mobile app, Mobile Scan & Go. This is a new version of the scan-while-walking-round-the-shop concept used by several supermarkets.
Until now handsets have usually been provided and kept at the store, but with Mobile Scan & Go the shopper uses a camera on their own iPhone or Android device to scan barcodes and QR codes and connect to an in-store wireless network. All they need, other than the device, is a Nectar card and account (for which they can apply in-store if necessary). The trial is running at the Clerkenwell and Bethnal Green stores in London and at Tadley in Hampshire. Sainsbury’s is hoping about 800 people will be persuaded to use the service at each location.
“We want to make sure customers are happy using their own phones,” says a spokesperson for Sainsbury’s. “We believe customers will prefer using a device they’re already comfortable with, rather than one they only use when in the store.” On the other hand, they won’t be able to use the Sainsbury’s WiFi network to connect to the wider internet. Will they mind?
The spokesperson says Sainsbury’s is not currently planning any broader use of customer-facing WiFi in-store. But he says it is possible to imagine some possible future extensions of the service, including using the app to input a shopping list before you reach the store, through which it will then guide you; integration with the mobile-optimised version of Sainsbury’s online shopping service; and working with Nectar to develop personalised offers.
Elsewhere, also in October, the video game store GAME announced it was working with BT to implement WiFi in its stores, through which consumers would again be able to interact with a free app offering access to product reviews, news and special offers.
Smaller retailers are also interested in wireless, claims Matthew Parkinson, business development manager at networking specialist D-Link, including independent IT shops in London and the south-east. Parkinson also says some retailers are using WiFi to run digital CCTV, for security purposes and footfall monitoring.
The use of WiFi is also being boosted by technical advances, Parkinson continues, including centralised management of multiple wireless infrastructures, which helps to reduce costs; and emerging technologies such as the 802.11ac wireless standard, which should enable speeds of 1GB per second.
Naturally, all retailers using WiFi will need to take great care to secure all wireless staff/consumer interactions. “There’s ample security capabilities,” says Craig Sears-Black. “The danger is not working with the right people to implement the technologies.”
Perhaps just as important will be the efforts needed to keep wireless networks functioning. “In a busy, built-up area there will be lots of interference from other devices,” says Parkinson. Companies such as D-Link provide solutions capable of identifying available signals in a given area then optimising their use and quality of service.
“It is inevitable that this technology will become more and more prevalent,” says Craig Sears-Black. “You can look at it as a threat and restrict the use of WiFi in the store, but if you do you’re going to be swimming against the tide. Forward-looking retailers are saying ‘this technology is here, it offers fantastic capabilities for the consumer, let’s see how we can take advantage’.”