In 1993 when Brett Stewart was speaking to top technology gurus at a conference in San Francisco, he predicted that the world would eventually enjoy the benefits of WiFi and that the required consumer hardware would be, “So cheap that you could buy it without asking your spouse.”
At that time, Stewart was working on two major projects, one regarding DSL and another on 802.11, the specification number for what was eventually dubbed WiFi. “It dawned on me that one day these two things would come together and enable what we now call hotspots,” recalled Stewart, who holds multiple WiFi patents. “I didn’t have a crystal ball. I just had information other people didn’t have.”
Fast forward two decades, and WiFi hotspots are providing wireless Internet access at no charge in airports, coin-operated laundries, coffee shops, grocery and book stores, public parks, gyms, hotels and fast-food restaurants. And now c-stores are identifying ways that WiFi can boost customer service.
Stay a While
Rutter’s Farm Stores, headquartered in York, Pa., began rolling out free WiFi to its stores in 2010, and today all 58 locations offer it. “We made the decision to add it to our stores because it’s another convenience we can provide for our customers,” said Alexandra Henry, communications manager for Rutter’s. “When customers come into a store, they simply open the browser on their device and then accept the terms and conditions of Rutter’s WiFi. We do not require a password.”
In Dallas, Texas, Green Spot Market & Fuels has six seats indoors and five outdoors where customers can enjoy a meal and surf the Web. “Often [the users are] people who are having trouble at home with their service or don’t have service because they just moved or something,” said Adam Velte, general manager for the three-store chain. “They’re grateful we have it.”
Based in Fremont, Calif., Vinter’s Distributors has locations throughout the state, offering fuel, food, convenience merchandise and lube services. Currently, Vinter’s is working with Acumera Inc., a North American connection services provider based in Austin, Texas, to install WiFi in some of its locations. So far, hotspots are operational in four stores, and the service will be in 25 more by the end of 2014.
“We want customers to spend more time inside the stores,” said Sanjit Bajimaya, IT manager for the 32-store chain. “We’re seen more traffic in the four stores with WiFi, but it’s too early to know if it impacts sales.”
PS Food Marts, owned and operated by Folk Oil Co. of Homer, Mich., has 31 stores, including a truckstop with a full-service restaurant and eight stores with Subway shops. Since 2011, the nine outlets featuring sit-down dining also have offered free WiFi.
Seating seems to have emerged as the tipping point for WiFi. In chains like Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes, where sit-down foodservice is available, so is free WiFi service.
“WiFi is almost an expectation anywhere you’re going to sit down and have lunch,” said Ed Heath, vice president of operations for Folk Oil Co. “Where we don’t have the seating available, it doesn’t make sense to invite customers to stay longer.”
Good, Bad and Ugly
WiFi definitely attracts customers, which has pros and cons. “The retailer wants the traffic but he also wants the customer to buy something and leave,” said Stewart. When they don’t leave, “We call that the ‘over-loiter’ problem.”
At PS Food Marts, “People definitely spend more time in our locations, and they end up spending more money,” said Heath. “But we also have the other extreme where people treat us like the public library, and they’ll be there for extended hours.”
This has been a challenge in smaller towns where the public library has limited hours and less comfortable seating than a PS Food Mart. One customer began spending up to six hours per day hanging out, using WiFi and chatting with employees at his favorite store. “He was a real nice guy,” said Heath. “But he was taking up a parking spot, and it was becoming an issue regarding employee productivity. We had to limit the hours he could stay at the store.”
Heath compares WiFi to any no-cost, convenient service, such as a restroom. “You have some people who come in, use the facility and leave without buying anything,” he said. “That’s just part of having a location that’s open to the public.”
Rutter’s hasn’t experienced a noticeable problem with WiFi-using squatters dawdling at the hotspots. “Most of our customers are looking to move quickly,” said Henry. “They’re people on their way to work or school, road warriors taking a break or people stopping for a quick bite who want to use the WiFi and then continue about their day.”
In-store WiFi that is available to the public is also available to employees, and businesses that offer it must establish WiFi policies for sales associates to follow.
At PS Food Marts, “We have a policy that states that employees can use their Internet-enabled devices during their break,” Heath said. “If the policies are too restrictive to be fair, employees will cheat. But if policies are seen as reasonable and fair, we have a much better chance of them being followed. It’s a lot to expect an 18–year-old to go eight hours without checking Facebook.”
Planning for WiFi
When working with a service provider to install hotspots in your store, keep the access point separate from your router, advised Stewart.
“An access point is a $60-70 item,” he said. “Don’t glue it to an expensive piece of equipment, such as a router. That router is expensive because it has to meet all the PCI network security requirements, and once you’ve got that working, you want to leave it alone. You don’t want to be changing out your PCI-compliant router because you want to update a $50 access point.”
The PCI standard dictates security measures on any network segment that is part of a cardholder data environment (CDE) and additional measures for access points that are part of the CDE. So it’s a good idea to keep your CDE segment as small as possible and use strong segmentation between the CDE and network segments that are considered to be “untrusted,” such as a free wireless service for customers, he advised.
Whether your store is open 24/7 or closes each evening, you also may choose to automatically turn off the WiFi service at a set time. This is especially true if your in-store restaurant closes before the store does.
“We have locations where our QSRs aren’t open the same hours as our stores, but during that time, the WiFi is still operational,” said Heath. “We can turn it off ourselves, but we want to develop a method that automatically shuts off the public WiFi at a designated time. You don’t want people loitering in your QSR area after it has closed. That is a security and liability issue.”
Even with the challenges of WiFi and the precautions that must go into its installation, it definitely draws the crowds.
“It’s hard to isolate any one thing and say that’s why sales are up or down,” said Heath. “But having WiFi is a competitive advantage, especially when you see how many people, including regular customers, are in our locations at lunch using their iPads and eating a sub.”