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.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Gunther Hust

"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."

This is complete rubbish and fearmongering. Have you heard of https? You know, the lock that comes on in your browser bar when you access your bank website, or login to webmail, or place an order on Amazon?

Firesheep is an annoyance at best.

Rakesh

Wireless security has been a problem, but the AP in the retailer outlet does not *have* to be open or encryption-less. Shoppers can request for access, or can be permanently entitled to it as a kind of loyalty acknowledgement.

You can always argue that some of the better security methods have been broken, but if that is the primary argument, then nobody should use Wi-Fi, not just retailers.

Conclusion being, if there is a demand for a technology, serve it. Better the technology, improve work-flows, but serve it.

Aziz Alfaz

I don't want to give Wi-Fi facility at shopping mall. This may become a threat for security, increase/makea crowd or gathering of unnecessery people who actually are not at a shopping mall for shopping but for using free Wi-Fi facilities.

Ghost

More rhetorical questions of narcissism and entitlement by our society.

Mark

WiFi is quickly becoming as necessary an amenity as air conditioning.

Supplying free WiFi these days is so prevalent that the claims of difficulty, cost, and security ring a bit hollow.

As many people come to the mall for free air conditioning or just plain socializing as come for the free WiFi. A few extra people who are only using the WiFi without shopping is not going to create any hazards. And remember, even the person who came for the WiFi can turn into a customer.

In short: If you think that many customers are a good thing, install WiFi, make sure it works well, and possibly have an in-store promotion system set up that will create interstitial ads once in a while.

If you subscribe to the theory of 'Each additional customer is an additional headache' then do not offer WiFi, air conditioning, cleanliness...and in short order you will have no more headaches.

Brains

The "security" argument is stupid--what is the difference between a store, a hotel an airport etc.? Hotels, airports, etc., already offer this service. The biggest issue is being able to supply such and do it without complaints.

Vanathy

Though having Wi-Fi connectivity is pretty cool (especially when you're super-busy or super-social), the question is more of whether the customers are actually going to do a lot of shopping or whether they're just there for the free Wif-fi. I know many folks who go into Starbucks and utilize their free wi-fi for a variety of official purposes (especially those who work from home) all for the price of a coffee. Plus, if they spend too much time at the cafes, what about all those people who are genuinely there for an actual drink?

It's also a question of whether we choose the customer's hapiness or bigger profit margins. If Wi-Fi is made free, it gives those malls/stores a competitive edge, but, only bigger and more well-off malls could actually pull this off without making an impact on thier budgets.

Indian

Wow! Great tihnking! JK

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