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The only thing worse than no guest WiFi is bad guest WiFi.
As convenience store chains roll out WiFi to support new loyalty programs, deploy mobile payment initiatives and enhance the customer experience, many are realizing the consequences of a haphazard WiFi implementation: compromised customer satisfaction, sacrificed data security and operational challenges.
Deploying WiFi in convenience stores is a technically complex, capital-intensive business initiative. Getting it right the first time is critical to avoid significant losses in customer satisfaction and store sales.
The following are the six biggest issues c-store owners must address in order to roll out guest WiFi the right way.
1. Lack of a clear WiFi policy
Perhaps the most critical mistake c-store chains make is not having an enterprise-wide WiFi policy in place. Without a formal policy, individual store managers or franchisees may take matters into their own hands.
In an age when consumers expect to be connected to the Internet wherever they go, WiFi-less store managers may feel compelled to go rogue and implement their own WiFi hotspots. This can expose the store brand to many minefields, including serious security breaches, damage to the brand or, worse, lawsuits.
C-store chains should either establish very clear rules and strategies for deploying in-store WiFi across branch locations or formally prohibit in-store WiFi altogether.
2. Inadequate operational planning
Before implementing a WiFi strategy, c-store operators need to ask: "Do we want to be an Internet service provider (ISP)? Do we have the core competencies and support infrastructure for managing a customer-facing Internet service?"
WiFi requires substantial installation, operations, field maintenance and call center services. When customers pull out their smartphones and endlessly wait to connect to a WiFi network and then wait again to reach their desired website, they’re frustrated and alienated before they’ve even made their purchases. If the customer was trying to access an online coupon or redeem loyalty points, the store may lose immediate and future product sales.
As with clean restrooms, fresh coffee and fast checkout, every aspect of the customer experience reflects heavily on the brand. It makes no sense to degrade an otherwise pleasant store experience with poor WiFi performance.
3. Inadequate security
Security is another area where having ISP-grade competency is critical. A c-store manager simply plugging in a wireless router with password protection is a reckless strategy, exposing both customers and store data to the potential dangers lurking on the Internet. In fact, such an approach may even violate a c-store’s PCI (payment card industry) compliance.
Providing nothing but raw connectivity exposes customers to the threat of nearby hackers. C-stores need to implement an ISP grade firewall, malware, antivirus, anti-spam and content-filtering solutions. If a customer were to lose all of his or her information to an Internet virus while standing in your store, they will certainly blame the store. In addition, if a child is exposed to inappropriate Internet content by another customer, parents would perhaps sue the c-store operator.
4. Lack of scale
The more customers in the store and in the forecourt, the more demands on the convenience store’s WiFi network. A customer’s worst WiFi experience will occur during the retailer’s peak sales opportunity. How do you plan for the crush of traffic that might otherwise exceed the broadband capacity in your store?
C-store owners need to adopt advanced techniques and technologies to increase the scale of the available broadband bandwidth. Available solutions include incorporating real-time compression algorithms to create extra virtual bandwidth and employing quality-of-service technologies to prioritize time-sensitive applications that drive sales (e.g. point-of-sale transactions, voice-over Internet protocol, etc.).
5. Insufficient installations
C-stores present a challenging WiFi environment. Food preparation areas, refrigerators, microwaves and even stacked cases of bottled water may wreak havoc with WiFi signals. Delivery trucks pulling up to the store may block WiFi access to the forecourt areas. And as more c-stores embrace the store-within-a-store model, an interfering mix of WiFi networks will make a mess of the customer’s experience.
WiFi implementations need to be carefully planned to ensure complete coverage. Even a c-store with a small footprint may need several additional WiFi access points for a high-quality customer experience.
6. Lack of future proofing
While WiFi begins with simple Internet connectivity requirements, it has the potential for completely revolutionizing the customer’s experience. WiFi may enable a retailer to anonymously collect/correlate a customer’s preferences in order to anticipate their wants/needs and proactively provide personalized promotions. WiFi may also be used to stream videos and games to entertain loyal customers on a road trip.
However, all WiFi solutions are not created equal. The simplest or cheapest solutions are often the most limiting. In order to maximize future opportunity, retailers need to design flexibility into today’s WiFi deployment.
A poorly deployed WiFi service may do more damage to the store’s reputation than not having any WiFi at all. C-store operators need to ask themselves if they want to be an ISP. If so, do they have the in-house skills and resources to handle all the planning, bandwidth, security, physical interferences and other complexities that come with the job?
For some chains, the information technology staff may be up to the challenge. For others, outsourcing all the headaches to a managed service provider makes the most sense. And in some cases, having a policy against in-store WiFi may be the wisest route.
Tim Tang is a director in the vertical market group for Hughes Network Systems LLC, an EchoStar company.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.