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There's no doubt mobile in the marketplace influences the way consumers shop. Whether they are using their smartphone to compare prices or pulling out tablets to access coupons and retail discounts, consumers are increasingly incorporating mobile devices into their shopping experiences.

However, using mobile devices in stores can present challenges, especially when the Wi-Fi signal is weak or nonexistent. So what effects does the availability of Wi-Fi have on the customer experience?

Life, Liberty and Free Wi-Fi

Thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices within the past few years, the ability to connect to free, reliable Wi-Fi has become a basic consumer expectation. 

Many cities worldwide offer free Wi-Fi to help people find and share information, and airlines, trains and even subways provide Wi-Fi to enhance travel experiences. The CTIA-The Wireless Association, an international organization representing the wireless communications industry, estimates 35.8 percent of US households were wireless only in 2012. In fact, experts expect Wi-Fi to become a utility within the next two to three years.

If you have a brick-and-mortar retail store, offering access to a wireless network may become just as essential as the products on your shelves. But how does it affect your sales? 

Wi-Fi: A Worthy Investment for Retailers?

A new report by the Acquity Group, an e-commerce and digital marketing agency, found free in-store Wi-Fi is a worthy investment for retailers. The study, Desktop vs. Smartphone: Technology’s Impact on Omnichannel Behavior, surveyed more than 1,500 smartphone owners to evaluate the importance of price, convenience, product availability, coupons, customer service and loyalty programs while shopping in store, online, on a smartphone and through social media.

The survey found 50 percent of smartphone owners feel more confident making major purchases when free in-store Wi-Fi is available. However, when shopping on a mobile device, the survey showed that smartphone owners of all age groups were most likely to rate convenience as the number one factor, compared to price on all other channels. This not only shows that mobile usage spans all generations, but that ease of use is a priority. 

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Free in-store Wi-Fi isn't just convenient. It's also empowering. According to the survey, 30 percent of smartphone owners would be more likely to browse additional items not on their list, while 20 percent of smartphone owners would spend longer in store. Additionally, free in-store Wi-Fi serves to provide a consistent user experience for customers across channels, which 46 percent of smartphone owners said would lead to additional purchases online.

This is especially important at a time when data shows more shoppers are browsing than buying.

Is Free Wi-Fi the Right Choice?

This is all contingent upon the Wi-Fi being reliable, secure and easy to access. Previous reports about the mobile coupon experience have shown that when access to in-store Wi-Fi is unreliable, it's harder to use mobile apps and redeem mobile coupons at checkout. 

Furthermore, by offering free in-store Wi-Fi stores retailers may face unintended consequences. Not all stores are designed to have people stay longer as it could disrupt the flow and impact inventory. Before deciding whether or not to offer WI-Fi, retailers are encouraged to consider the potential impact on staff, customer service and overall in-store experience, as well as how their infrastructure will support it. 

Still, there are ways for retailers to offer free Wi-Fi through less conventional means  -- recently Facebook teamed up with Cisco to provide users with free Wi-Fi each time they check-in to a location with Facebook Places. 

Though Wi-Fi is becoming a part of the customer experience, there's still time for in-store retailers to experiment with new ways of engaging the customer. Yet retailers of all shapes and sizes are behooved to optimize mobile channels for more convenient and seamless integration so that they can guarantee they can be used regardless if Wi-Fi is available or not. 

 Image credit: Shutterstock / sebra