The next time you travel around your neighborhood, pay attention to how many businesses advertise free Wi-Fi access. McDonald’s began doing this in 2009; Starbucks followed suit in 2010. It was a move that made sense: these businesses wanted their customers to stay on-site longer, in the hopes that as time went by, Wi-Fi users would make additional food or beverage purchases.
Some smaller cafes and restaurants that tried to follow suit discovered that free Wi-Fi came with some costs. Customers would come in, make a very minimal purchase and spend hours – sometimes entire days – parked at a table. This kept other, paying customers from using the table, and in the words of more than one restauranteur who spoke to me about this issue, “attracted a lot of people who had no intention of ever being our customer.”
When this happened, some business owners discontinued providing free Wi-Fi. Others decided to stick it out and see what happened. As Wi-Fi access became more universal and less of a novelty, the number of abusive users has tapered off. At the same time, companies of all sizes – including Starbucks! – have developed policies to limit how long customers can surf the web on their dime.
While all of this was going on, mobile device usage increased at stratospheric rates. Today, more than half of all website traffic originates on a smartphone or other mobile device. We know that shoppers go online before they go shopping, to research purposes. They’re also going online while they’re shopping – yes, sometimes to compare prices, but they’re also seeking further information on products they’re considering buying. After purchases have been made, these same shoppers are going back online for customer service or to show their friends on social media their new favorite thing.
A Crafty Strategy: Understanding Jo-Ann’s Fabrics Decision to Offer Free Wi-Fi
Jo-Ann’s Fabrics has recently made free Wi-Fi available in all 850 of its stores. I love this for two specific reasons: the first is the clear understanding that customers of all generations are mobile-enabled – Jo-Ann’s customers range from Gen Z right through Baby Boomers – and because this investment was made as part of a strategic plan to grow Jo-Ann’s business.
Jo-Ann’s already has significant digital marketing assets in place, including robust email marketing and targeted social media advertising, primarily on Facebook. Providing free Wi-Fi is a way to expand the reach of these already successful strategies, as well as accessing a deeper understanding of customer behavior in-store.
As a condition of accessing Jo-Ann’s Wi-Fi, customers agree to provide device’s location to Jo-Ann and its partners for analytical and marketing purposes. Subsequent to collecting Wi-Fi-accessing customers’ information, Jo-Ann’s team created Facebook advertising targeted to a look-alike audience. According to Ad Age, these ads produced six times the number of store visits compared to those attributed to ads aimed at standard Facebook look-alike segments.
Is Offering Free Wi-Fi Right For Your Business?
For Jo-Ann’s Fabrics to offer free Wi-Fi in all their stores required a six-figure investment. For smaller retailers and business owners, the costs will be lower. However, before you spend a single penny, it’s important to put the time into figuring out what role free Wi-Fi plays in strengthening your relationship with your customers. Create a strategic plan that outlines how you’ll collect and use customer data to grow your business. A revenue projection, using conservative growth estimates, will allow you to assess if the investment is worth it. Customer expectations play a role in this determination as well: shoppers who are used to being able to log on anywhere may not say anything positive if they can do so successfully in your store, but if they can’t, they’ll likely have plenty to say.