Wi-Fi Wild-Fire: The Next Big Retail Marketing Tool


I’ve just read the news about Walmart’s decision to offer free Wi-Fi in stores – its Sam’s Club division will offer free Wi-Fi provided by AT&T in all stores by November. It has garnered a great deal of media attention, causing one blogger to wonder if Wi-Fi may end up being one of the greatest retail marketing tools of the last decade.

Many retailers, restaurants, entertainment venues, as well as public facilities have begun to offer Wi-Fi in their environments to attract and retain customers. Last December, McDonald’s announced it would be offering free Wi-Fi in an effort to “turn its restaurants into hangout spots,” and Starbucks just recently eliminated the tariffs on its in-store wireless service. My local “JavaU” and “Second Cup” coffee shops have done this for a while, and the biggest challenge seems to be getting the students to buy more stuff to warrant them ‘hanging out’ for the entire day! However ... Sam’s Club has even greater aspirations.   

The interesting thing about the Sam’s Club development is that the company is leveraging Wi-Fi as a way to support the in-store sales process. Sam's Club will also be releasing an app for Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone users to help shoppers comparison shop at its warehouses and find value in paying a membership fee for the right to shop at members-only club prices. The company will be making hundreds of product reviews accessible “in-club” to help members research potential purchases and access samsclub.com

This is a quite brilliant strategy as the folks at Walmart/Sam’s Club understand that online research is now central to a great percentage of consumers making purchasing decisions. Findings from a recent study on online product research shows people strongly prefer to do their own research online rather than speak to a sales associate in the store. Respondents say online research is preferred for three reasons: the ability to save time, increase confidence, and provide credible information. This challenge is one that will grow and will pressure retailers into working hard to define what is so special in their stores that warrants a visit if it’s not their associates, and be more than just a delivery mechanism for an online order. Could the store of the future be merely a drive-thru with an automated forklift inserting the purchases into the boot ... sorry ... trunk of your car?

I digress … OK … the Sam’s Club app will also provide discount coupons and previews. So, by providing free Wi-Fi, Sam’s Club can now effectively enable shoppers to research to their hearts content, eliminating the need for shoppers to leave the store to “think about it” and/or do some comparative research at home, while also providing promotions to drive store traffic. 

Free Wi-Fi is a great marketing tool, because it bridges the in-store and online worlds, and promotes customer engagement. If retailers can use this access to “encourage” use of their apps and websites, then it has to be a good thing for them, and a great thing for the savvy shopper wanting to make use of Wi-Fi as an alternative to giving their data plan some abuse. And as smartphones become ubiquitous (and we are probably getting very close to that time), Wi-Fi will also be facilitating things such as in-store self-service as well as browsing … I’m worried for these store assistants – if my app is ready to tell me “you look fabulous in that!” I won’t need to talk to anyone! 

Posted by Duncan Taylor, Director of Product Management, Epicor



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