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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
A sign on the door at Kohl’s in Apple Glen encourages customers to use the department store’s free Wi-Fi as they shop.

Wi-Fi shopping strategy

Brick-and-mortar retailers use online connections to boost sales


Retailers know shoppers are doing it, so why fight it?

Showrooming – the practice of checking out items in stores only to buy them cheaper online – is a retail reality.

The National Retail Federation this month released its forecast for the year, projecting that Internet sales will grow as much as 12 percent, while brick-and-mortar sales will expand a little more than 4 percent.

The industry contributes $2.5 trillion to the annual gross domestic product.

Given the Internet sales growth, the trend among retailers to offer free Wi-Fi at walk-in stores might not seem to be in their best interests. But industry consultant Charles Nicholls says the Wi-Fi can play in their favor.

Smart merchants know showrooming is as much a part of the shopping experience as clipping coupons, said Nicholls, founder and chief strategy officer of SeeWhy Inc. of Boston.

“If they don’t (adapt), they’ll end up roadkill,” Nicholls said. “The online and offline worlds are colliding, and you have to embrace it.”

A six-month survey by SeeWhy of more than 60,000 shoppers found that consumers who showroom are twice as likely to buy from the retailer in-store or online instead of buying from a competitor.

That may be a big reason why retailers including Macy’s, Target, Kohl’s and Meijer have begun offering Wi-Fi for guests with mobile devices.

Meijer announced its wireless Internet expansion in January.

“The days of feeling that once we got them in the store, we don’t have to worry are over,” Nicholls said. “But for a lot of people, they want instant gratification, and that’s where brick-and-mortar does well.”

Kohl’s manager Adam Skaggs agrees. He said it’s no secret that technology is changing the retail landscape, but being able to actually try on a pair of shoes beats ordering them online and hoping they fit.

“There’s something to that,” said Skaggs, who oversees the Kohl’s store at the Northcrest Shopping Center. “We’ve had Wi-Fi for about a year, and our customers really enjoy using it and do so quite often with their mobile devices.”

Last month, Meijer announced the presence or expansion of Wi-Fi at its 204 Midwest stores. Spokeswoman Christina Fecher said the company offers the service to make it more convenient for shoppers to access the store’s mPerks program, which is digital coupon effort.

“It’s been well received,” she said, declining to disclose the dollar investment.

Little wonder. Customers using free Wi-Fi don’t have to use their own device’s data plan.

The SeeWhy survey found that although a third of the shoppers use mobile gadgets to showroom, most of them do so only to check prices online and read reviews.

The poll was conducted from February to July 2013 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

“Showrooming is not as widespread as people would think,” Nicholls said. “People like the convenience of being able to touch and feel merchandise. As long as prices are comparable, even if they’re a little higher, shoppers will buy from a store.”

University of Saint Francis student RaShaan Stephens said he doesn’t set out to showroom when he goes into a store. Still, his smartphone is usually in his hand, and it just makes sense to comparison shop online.

“I don’t feel guilty about it,” the 18-year-old said. “Everybody tries to save money if they can.”

Diana Nicole said she won’t hesitate to use her smartphone to check online to see if an item is cheaper.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” the 20-year-old Fort Wayne teller said. “We would be kind of crazy not to do it.”

Shelley E. Kohan is vice president of retail consulting at San Jose, Calif.-based RetailNext Inc., which helps merchants gauge consumer behavior.

She said retailers have never stood pat when it comes to customers. For instance, video cameras have been used to monitor consumer shopping behavior for years.

Wireless-device activity provides another avenue of keeping tabs on customers, Kohan said.

“People want a personalized marketing plan,” she said. “They don’t want email alerts about products they’ll never buy. So, a retailer is saying, ‘How can I remain relevant?’ ”

Information gathered from video and mobile device analytics provides retailers with a wealth of information about the product placement, customer visit times, traffic flows and other patterns.

“Retailers use this information to provide a more satisfying shopping experience,” Kohan said.