Overcoming the challenges of retail Wi-Fi


This article originally appeared in WSJ.com's CIO Journal (may require subscription).

It sounds like a simple proposition for retailers: provide Wi-Fi for customers and employees to use with their smartphones and tablets inside their stores.

Shoppers are coming to expect it: in a recent survey by SapientNitro and GfK Roper, 63% said free Wi-Fi would enhance their shopping experience. And even though some will use the service to compare prices online, more and more retail chains are offering Wi-Fi service to customers. In the 2012 holiday season JC Penney Inc Target Corp.and Saks Inc. joined the ranks of other chains that had offered Wi-Fi in previous years, including Macy’s Inc., Sam’s Club and Nordstrom Inc. Wi-Fi also offers opportunities to improve employee productivity and customer satisfaction–for example, by allowing a sales person to check the stockroom without leaving the floor, or even to complete a sales transaction in the aisles.

There are more than 80 million unique Wi-Fi networks in the US. How difficult could it be to put a few into stores?

Very difficult, it turns out. In fact, Bain & Company’s work with retailers finds that rolling out Wi-Fi to a network of stores is among the most capital intensive and complex projects IT departments will tackle this decade. That’s true in other industries as well, whether it’s a cruise line installing Wi-Fi in its ships or a large company rolling Wi-Fi out among a network of offices.

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Rasmus Wegener is a partner in Bain & Company’s Atlanta office. Rudy Puryear leads Bain’s Global IT practice and is based in Chicago.