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How the mobile phone is revolutionising the customer shopping experience.

Penned by
Abby Francis

Web savvy shoppers

Over 90% of UK smartphone owners carry their device on them at all times. So it comes to no surprise that many people use their mobile phones simultaneously whilst out shopping. Whether it's for price comparison, finding voucher codes or using maps to locate a store, a wealth of knowledge is at the fingertips of shoppers everywhere.

The high-street and shopping centres are adapting to the new digital frontier as the UK’s retail sales are starting to rise to levels pre-recession. But what's the full story? Let's take a closer look.


The changing retail landscape

In December of 2013, online sales topped£10 billion in a single month. Having grown 3% year on year, it's revenue physical stores can't afford to lose out on.

Since then, online sales have continued to climb – the most recent figures report a 12% increase in online sales across 2014, resulting in online shopping sneaking up to 11% of all retailing.

The numbers sound small, but it translates to a lot of money – almost £4 billion worth of retail sales have moved from stores to online.

The Wi-Fi havens

Average Wi-Fi session time within the UK's largest shopping centres. (Source: WifiMapper)

  • Average Time (minutes)

A concern for many smartphone users will be a simple one: just how much of my data allowance is this constant connectivity going to drain?

And it's a valid one – constant product checks and online app usage will eat up 3G and 4G data, defeating the object of getting people on their phones while they're browsing in store. The answer is obvious – get shoppers connected to Wi-Fi.

There are plenty of tools for this – WiFiMapper is an app available on Android and iOS that helps find free and secure Wi-Fi networks around the world, from the folks who developed OpenSignal to do the same for 3G and 4G. WiFiMapper contains nearly 900 million hotspots all over the world, crowdsourced by users, with ratings to help assuage any fears that can come from randomly connecting to strange networks.

Depending on where you are in the country, you may struggle to find a freely available open connection while roaming the high-street. But shopping centres have the infrastructure to provide Wi-Fi to the massive number of people coming through their doors, and are well placed to start taking advantage of the benefits of increased mobile use – even showrooming – both in individual stores, and on a centre-wide level.

Using data supplied by WiFiMapper, it's clear just how well-connected shopping centres are, even in as simple terms as the number of routers present. According to the app, the UK's ten biggest centres have a combined total of 3999 Wi-Fi routers present, so the average number is well into the hundreds – there are 864 present at Westfield Stratford City in London, for example.

It should come as no surprise that the centres that have more routers per square metre, stronger networks, and newer Wi-Fi technology generally see more users connecting for longer periods – although part of the increased session length will be down to slower loading times when more people are accessing the network. On average, users spend 25 minutes on the Wi-Fi when shopping in one of the UK's ten largest centres – more than enough time to showroom plenty of options.

An analysis of the WifiMapper data, shows that when Wi-Fi is made available to shoppers, they definitely use it – an average of 31%, or close to a third of people, are logging on to the Wi-Fi while shopping at the UK's biggest centres. Combined with 3G and 4G users, we wouldn't be surprised to see the proportion surpassing the 50% of those in the US showrooming while they shop.

This is the benefit that shopping centres can offer – Wi-Fi capabilities that allow shoppers to browse and make purchases in the way that people are increasingly telling us, through their behaviour, that they want to. The challenge of the retail sector is to find ways to adapt to changes, not ignore change and hope things will eventually return to normal. Thanks to their size and wide range of stores under one roof, shopping centres are in the best position to test new technologies, as Stephen Millard, managing director of Eccomplished, pointed out in Computer Weekly. Department stores such as John Lewis, Macy's and JC Penny are already leading the way – with the massive infrastructure already in place, and already being used, it's time for shopping centres to go the extra mile.


Adapting to mobile


"Online retail" can't be viewed as one monolithic block – it's necessary to make a distinction between online sales made on a PC compared to on mobile devices (including smartphones and tablets). In a recent study of online retailing across Europe, the US and Canada, the Centre for Retail Research found that the UK's shoppers are increasingly going mobile when it comes to making purchases. While PC sales remain the majority, they are rapidly beginning to fall – plunging by 10% from 81% in 2014 to 71% in 2015. Mobile sales, as a result, have leapt up from 19% in 2014 to 29% in 2015 . That's a huge jump for just one year.

What's more, the UK is embracing mobile shopping more than any other country in Europe – only Germany and Sweden come close on 28% and 26% respectively. In the US, the figure sits at 27%. This is something that stores would do well to capitalise upon – and they are beginning to.

Web savvy shoppers

A UK mobile consumer review conducted by Deloitte found that 13% of UK adults have made mobile payments in store, 40% have made mobile purchases, and 59% have browsed retailers' sites – there is clearly something here that can be capitalised on.

But despite the UK being slightly more likely to buy on mobile, the bulk of the research is being done in the US – and it's already clear that we can learn a thing or two from across the Atlantic. US-based research from the Interactive Advertising Bureau goes even further in assessing online behaviour in relation to physical shopping. Its recent Digital Shopping Report found that half of US adults check prices online while browsing in-store, in order to make a direct price comparison before purchasing – a process it calls "showrooming". Encouragingly, shoppers are more likely to continue with their in-store purchase than they are to be distracted by showrooming, so it's not necessarily something for retailers to fear.

Reuters recently conducted an investigation into how US retailers are integrating mobile experiences into their stores, in order to capitalise on shoppers' tendency to showroom, and to further minimise lost sales. It found that Staples, for example, is testing an app that does the showrooming for its customers, checking store's prices against Amazon in a similar way to how supermarkets already price match with their competitors in the UK.

Macy's shoppers can download an app to guide them through the store to the products they're seeking – a real-world search bar! Computer Weekly has reported that John Lewis has been looking into the same technology in the UK too. JC Penney, on the other hand, is developing an app that will allow customers to take pictures of things to find out if it's stocked in store – a slightly more behavioural, textural version of a barcode scanner.

These are just the big-ticket ideas – much smaller customer service and payment integrations using mobile are springing up all over. The landscape is changing once again.


Report created in Partnership with WifiMapper

In partnership with Open Signal

WifiMapper helps people find free Wi-Fi anywhere in the world. Avoid roaming fees while traveling, find the ideal cafe to work in, or limit your data usage to avoid going over your limits; WifiMapper can help. It’s based on an ever-growing database of nearly 900 million hotspots, curated and updated by the users of the app themselves.

The app tells you whether a hotspot requires a password, and in many cases, other users have given the passwords so you can connect to public networks straight away. You can also read and write comments on the hotspot and save your favourite networks so you can easily find them again.

In early 2016, WifiMapper will launch free maps that work offline, so even if you have no connection at all, you'll easily be able to find your way to a network you can use. Never again will you be stuck without Wi-Fi with no way of getting back online.

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