4 Ways Businesses Use Free Wi-Fi to Better Serve Customers

Wi-Fi may be a given in some areas of our lives - like our offices and our homes - but savvy businesses are also adding free Wi-Fi access to make visiting their locations a better experience. They use it to offer discounts and product information to customers, help students and visitors work during their downtime or turn waiting time into productive time - and, maybe, an enticement to come back.

Here, four businesses explain why they offer free Wi-Fi and how their customers benefit from it.

Boston Ballet: Better Access for Students

Before the Boston Ballet added free Wi-Fi in three of its Boston locations, students, parents and guests who wanted to work or study while on campus had to hunt down the strongest signal on a wireless device and hope for the best.

Now they can hook into a free Wi-Fi system and stop hunting.

The concept rolled out four years ago when the Boston Ballet, a globally recognized dance company and school, added Wi-Fi for a limited number of employees and company dancers in its main location. The program expanded after that. Through Comcast Business, it took the program to all four of its city locations in early 2013 and, in October of that same year, to its more remote locations for its staff and dancers.

Making a network more accessible in those first three buildings was done with students, parents and guests in mind, says Nathan Burlak, IT director for the Boston Ballet. "We have recognized the importance of providing wireless network for students and parents to engage in educational and work-related activities," he says. For students or parents who want to get work done while waiting, the Wi-Fi eliminates their need to search for a strong enough wireless signal - and to use up data plans.

[ Case Studies: Westmont College and Santa Clara University Graduate to Gigabit Wi-Fi ]

The program "is definitely beneficial to students to stay connected to their academic program," Burlak adds, referring to outside school work unrelated to the classes they take at the Boston Ballet.

Wi-Fi costs about $6,000 a year. That number includes ISP provider charges, antivirus and monitoring software licenses, but not costs associated with hardware, human resources and cooling and power.

Rockin' Jump: Easing Wait Times for Parents of Trampolining Children

Rockin' Jump, a trampoline park, included free Wi-Fi from the get-go - though not with those who'd be doing the bouncing in mind.

"Most trampoline parks are designed for kids. Ours are designed for adults," says Drew Wilson, president and CFO of Rockin' Jump. He refers not so much to the actual jump space but, rather, to what's outside it. He wants to make it attractive to waiting parents and caregivers. "We have good food. It's clean. Parents are doing work and their kids are getting the exercise they need," he says.

[ Case Study: NFL CIO Looks to Improve Fan Experience With Wi-Fi, Analytics ][ More: New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles Bring Wi-Fi to Football]

The company now has four corporate locations, and more than a dozen franchise locations in the works. Wi-Fi will be a part of each one The cost comes out to about $75 per location per year, Wilson says.

"Parents do drive decisions. We want to make sure it's a very comfortable place for them to hang out," he says.

Sears: Shopping Beyond a Physical Location

About 400 Sears locations now have Wi-Fi, says Leena Munjal, senior vice president of member experience and integrated retail.

The idea behind adding it to stores was to make a better overall shopping experience, where customers can access more than just what's in that retail location. "By leveraging wireless and mobile technology in stores, we provide our members a convenient, integrated experience," Munjal says.

That includes allowing customers to use smartphones and tablets to browse the Web, check out product review, and order Sears items that may be out of stock in that physical location. If customers are members of Sears' Shop Your Way loyalty program, they can also download coupons to their devices to be used in the store. Munjal says Sears is not collecting data to track customer movements or to see what customers access while using the store's Wi-Fi service.

[ Related: 5 (Noninvasive) Ways to Track In-Store Customer Behavior ]

Munjal declined to share what the program costs but did say Sears expects to expand the free Wi-Fi program to more store locations.

Publix: Quick, Get the Grocery List

Publix, a grocery store chain with locations in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee, has offered free Wi-Fi at all of it 1,077 locations since mid-2012. The company did this because it saw a need for customers to access information quickly while in the store.

" Publix.com offers customers the opportunity to create, modify and save their shopping list," says Maria Brous, Publix director of media and community relations. The program, called "My Grocery List," also includes item locations in the store and the capability to add items directly from the store's circular. "If a customer would like to access that shopping list and didn't print it, they would need [Wi-Fi] access," Brous says.

[ Review: Ruckus Wi-Fi Access Points for Your Small Business ]

Publix also considered the growing health consciousness of its customer base, which might use the Wi-Fi to check out information about a particular product from the manufacturer's website or to use an item's QR code to access more information. Like Sears, Publix is not collecting or tracking customers' use of information obtained through the Wi-Fi network.

Brous declined to share how much the program costs.

Jen A. Miller is a freelance journalist from New Jersey who writes for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and Runner's World, among others. She can be reached at www.jenamiller.com or n Twitter at @byJenAMiller. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

Read more about wifi in CIO's Wifi Drilldown.

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