The increased dependency of broadband in any retail estate is plain to see, especially with the growth of cloud based applications and social media. Retailers are increasingly using their broadband both to improve the customer's in-store experience with free Wi-Fi as well as to connect with their own Wide Area Network to transfer transaction and logistical data.

And the way consumers are accessing the net is changing rapidly. According to the latest OFCOM Communications Market Report, 39% of adults and over 66% of teenagers own a smartphone with 57% claiming to have used their smartphone as part of the shopping experience (see graph, below).

Smart retailers are picking up on this and are providing Wi-Fi access for customers (whilst at the same time picking up permission based customer details) and sales assistants are actively seen using tablets in retail stores to demonstrate items, check stock or to even fulfil a customer order when an item is not available on site.

A retailer's ability to connect to central or hosted resources wirelessly enables faster and better management decisions. Immediate access to data and performance dashboards showing such things as stock levels, promotional responses and staff roistering, help managers to monitor performance, identify problems and take appropriate action to adapt to changing scenarios, thus improving productivity and customer service. Further it enables head office to rapidly update store EPoS terminals with price changes, stock information and promotional offers.

The so-called Generation Y, those that have grown up with computers, smartphones and social media and are becoming the most desirable target market for many retailers and they are estimated to be 1.7 billion people worldwide. This is a demanding generation that expects to be connected wherever they go, whenever they want. They expect that the people they interact with are connected and that businesses can provide what they want, instantly.

Are you legal?

Providing straight forward open Wi-Fi access is a one way transaction with all the benefits going to the customer and potentially presenting a security risk. Furthermore, if you are providing public facing Wi-Fi it must be according to the various legal terms of the following acts:

The Data Retention (EC Directive) Regulations 2009 - the requirement to retain key statistics for 12 months. Who used the service and when? 

Data Protection Act 1998 - if you retain people’s details, make sure you do it legally.

Digital Economy Act 2010 - prove it was a customer that was doing something illegal – if you can’t you will have to take the flack personally.

The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) (Amendment) Regulations 2004 - if you send marketing information to individual’s email addresses – make sure you have their permission!

The good news is that with a properly provided public hotspot, using a landing page that customers using the service have to agree to terms and conditions before access is granted, both the retailer and the customer can be legally covered and protected.

Are you in control?

Standard Wi-Fi access can simply allow customers to compare stock or prices with a competitor – surely you want to maximise the benefits of providing a facility whilst at the same time managing what the customer sees and capturing the details of who is accessing the service?

As you don't want your customers to hog all of your bandwidth by downloading large files, you can control exactly what they can and cannot do. Email and internet browsing may be fine but not heavy music or film downloads. You can control the sites customers can or cannot visit and the length of time you allow them to be on your free Wi-Fi service.

Wouldn't you also like to get your customers to tell all their friends and family how great your business is... and would you like to know them better, so you can make contact with them and provide them with offers for being such a good customer – or to find out where they went if you lose their custom?

Your Wi-Fi service can be totally bespoke to your specific requirements and even fully integrated with social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+. For example, customers can log in by clicking the Facebook or other social media icon on your landing page which automatically creates a "Like" or a "tweet" that is broadcast to their friends... Current market analysis says that each Facebook Like is worth £85 to your business.

Moreover, why not sweeten the deal and incorporate your Wi-Fi, social media and loyalty scheme and offer your customer a discount the next time they visit and logon?

Your Wi-Fi vendor should be able to track and report on all this activity providing you with greater visibility of your customers and their behaviour.

Are you Smart?

Most people take for granted the infrastructure that Wi-Fi services run over, and in recent years the broadband connection has been treated somewhat as a commodity when in reality it is a business critical service. It has to work, and without it there can be a real impact for staff and customers. If however, the service can be accurately scrutinised, and its on-going performance analysed, this provides a predictive monitoring service for both the connectivity and equipment on site that actively works as a preventative maintenance service. This improves uptime, maximises business continuity performance and provides greater customer satisfaction.

Smart Active Monitoring (SAM) provides customers with full transparency of the performance at all of their sites with a national "traffic light" mapping of their retail estate that is monitored 24x7 (see image, left). It looks for potential failure patterns and identify the root cause of any problem - the 

advanced algorithms contained in the predictive maintenance software alert if pre-determined service thresholds are about to be breached, so that immediate action can be taken before a failure occurs or has even impacted a site. If a failure does occur, improved diagnostics mean a faster fix and if necessary an engineer on site next day with a 3G crash pack so that service can be restored.

For businesses which have a trading dependency on their network connection, a cost effective service such as Smart Active Monitoring proves its worth by reducing faults by up to thwo-thirds. Avoiding interruptions to service are a high priority, increasing customer satisfaction, reducing opportunity trading losses and improving overall productivity.

Free Customer Wi-Fi is here to stay

With a Wi-Fi capability more than likely available in a retail store, it makes sense to exploit the advantages it can provide for your business and your customers. However, you must ensure that your Wi-Fi supplier can provide you with the necessary security, control, dependability and legalities and that you can use its marketing benefits to your advantage.

Europacom.net