A recent trip to the States reminded me of how some shopper needs are so basic that we take it for granted that they should be freely available in the institutions we patronise. In fact when this isn’t the case it is hugely frustrating and will turn customers away. Imagine going to a restaurant and being denied free tap water or use of their toilets.

The world of physical retail still separates itself from it’s online counterpart, by its ability to deliver a tangible, human experience. It has real staff that can offer customer service. It offers pleasant and helpful physical interaction. It survives by responding to customer’s real-world needs.

I’ve developed the habit of checking Wi-Fi networks wherever I am. Originally on my laptop in any building I sat down in (mainly restaurants & airports), now on my mobile in.. well, any building. In the Mid-West State of Indiana, every store I entered I found a free and easy-to-log-onto signal. Whether it was Dunkin Donuts, Target, Trader Joes, Marsh, Nordstrums, Macy’s, Waterstones, Best Buy, Half price books… Everywhere I could connect. Everywhere was instant and free of charge. 

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In the UK this is rarely the case. Networks tend to be locked or a service you have to sign up and pay for (BT Openzone). However there are two very important reasons that free Wi-Fi should be a benchmark service for retailers to provide:

1. Transparency
Retail no longer exists in isolation to the internet.

This statement may sound obvious, but shopper behaviour is irreversibly shifting towards online and mobile shopping. See the stats:

A retailer that does not consider mobile at the heart of its multi channel strategy is a retailer that will not survive. Customers now include physical “bricks” retail as just part of their integrated shopping behavior. It provides benefits like immersive brand experience, product interaction, service & ease.

Mobile browsing has become a natural extension of physical browsing. Customers expect to be able to compare and check products and prices as they would looking through the same clothing rack or by walking to a store next door. By facilitating this through fast mobile connectivity, retailers make shopping easier and less stressful. They become a helpful, facilitating, useful brand. The reverse is that you are a retailer who makes shopping more difficult for their customer.

2. Social
Our lives have changed and “Instant” has become the new “Fast”.

We now expect to be in contact all the time. Even 30 seconds queuing for a coffee is a conversation or a reconnection with our friends or pier group. In Fact it seems insane to consider that we would choose to enter an environment that puts an obstacle in our way of quickly checking a mail, tweet or update as we walk around. It casts a shroud of unease over the experience.

What’s our reaction to unease? Do I find that I leave the store earlier? Do I learn to shop elsewhere that facilitates my need as a connected person?

The answer is that we gravitate towards what is easy. It’s also the case that successful retailers understand what customers find ways to answer their needs and make shopping easy.

Many global retailers still view Wi-Fi as a potential customer perk with no direct benefit to their business. Only a few months ago I was in a meeting with a global mobile telecoms provider who argued that allowing customers to connect to the internet in store would result in a store full of people checking their email for free instead of shopping… and this is a company whose business is selling devices that connect to the internet.

More often I meet retailers who weigh the cost and benefits of providing “connectivity” in the hope it may frame them as being a “generous brand”. I would argue that connectivity is no longer a “generosity” issue. It has become a basic human requirement and that retailers should not only provide it but change tac and develop solutions that enable them to leverage this exciting new behaviour with web based services to fulfill customer needs in a way that they cannot do purely on line.

After all this is at the heart of being a effective “multichannel” retailer.