Shoppers Deserve Free Wi-Fi
All retailers should provide free Wi-Fi service for customers in their stores. Pro or con?
Pro: Give the People What They Want
Next time you’re in a shopping mall, take a minute to count the number of people tapping something into their iPhones or Android smartphones. Making updates to Facebook, e-mailing photos, and even checking product reviews before making a big purchase are as common as chatting with friends via cell phone while shopping.
Like airports and cafés, an increasing number of retailers are offering Wi-Fi as an amenity, so customers will have a better shopping experience and spend more time in the store—regardless of whether cellular companies can deliver a reliable data signal indoors. "Consumers expect to be connected wherever they are," says Catharine Dickey, an executive vice-president at shopping mall owner Westfield. "Our shoppers are embracing the use of Wi-Fi in our malls."
But what about the cost, security, and IT burden of having to install and maintain a Wi-Fi network? As networking technologies have grown more advanced, the cost of installing a secure, enterprise-class Wi-Fi system has dropped to a 10th the cost of a few years ago. It’s as easy to install as a new storefront display. At Meraki, we’ve seen such retailers as United Colors of Benetton (BEN:IM) deploy networks in just a few hours—and end up serving 1,000 shoppers a day.
A better shopping experience leads to more engaged shoppers, who spend more time in retail stores. With recent advances in cost, ease of deployment, and network security relating to Wi-Fi, the real question is: "When do we start?"
Con: Beware of Compromised Security
Open Wi-Fi access carries a lot of inherent security issues—notwithstanding that businesses frequently require consumers to click through a terms-and-conditions landing page before hopping on their networks.
Though it hasn’t happened yet, retailers could end up being held liable for serious data breaches. Hackers are always lurking around Wi-Fi spots and can steal user names, passwords, and data from banking and online shopping transactions. Surfing the Web on a public Wi-Fi network can be just as dangerous as leaving your computer unattended at an internet café.
As we saw late last year, a Firefox extension dubbed "Firesheep" allowed hackers to essentially eavesdrop on any open Wi-Fi network and capture users’ confidential information. It’s difficult for retailers that provide free Wi-Fi to anticipate such threats. After all, why should they? Usually they are providing the service "as is," with no guarantee of security for patrons.
Most consumers remain oblivious to security problems associated with logging on to free Wi-Fi networks—and how hackers can steal their information and use it for financial gain. Until consumers better understand these issues, only retailers that can take extra security precautions should offer Wi-Fi to their customers.