Wi-Fi a differentiator for retailers?

Dufferin Mall recently became the first shopping centre in the Toronto area to provide free Wi-Fi access, a move that is consistent with the growing trend of Wi-Fi adoption among businesses to set themselves apart from the competition.

Wireless provider FatPort has set up wireless connectivity in the mall’s food court, allowing users to go online while shopping, said Dufferin Mall general manager Lana Vukelic. “There’s been a shift in the market — people like to communicate and be in touch,” she said.

Customers can obtain a “FatCode” log-in from Guest Services that entitles them to an hour of free surfing. If they want more online time, they simply go get a new code for another hour. Vukelic sees shoppers using the service for keeping in touch with their kids elsewhere in the mall and doing price-checking online.

Public Wi-Fi has become more and more ubiquitous over the last few years, said Info-Tech Research senior research analyst Mark Tauschek. “It will become even more widespread as more and more dual-mode devices come out, because, for a long time, that was what really pushed (WiFi hotspots) back,” he said.

Vukelic foresees Apple’s iPhone — which recently sold out very quickly at the mall — being a big driver of Wi-Fi usage in the shopping centre and beyond.

Increasing numbers of laptops with embedded wireless capabilities from vendors like Dell and Toshiba have also been pushing along hotspot usage in Canada, said IDC Canada vice-president of communications research Lawrence Surtees.

The retail vertical specifically is spreading more out of the traditional coffee-shop Wi-Fi hotspot model, but it’s not widespread yet, said Gartner Research’s vice-president of mobile computing Ken Dulaney. He said, “Wi-Fi requires a degree of sophistication, and having local area networks accessible by customers in shopping malls isn’t there yet.”

Tauschek said, “All these factors mean that Wi-Fi is becoming somewhat of a differentiator (in the retail space).”

But what’s good for the retail outlets using it might not be so good for the IT managers who don’t set good mobile policies. Surtees said that a Wi-Fi survey done last November found that over a quarter of the SMB and enterprise respondents were using Wi-Fi hotspots. Whether they were using them in a security-savvy manner is where the potential problems come in.

Said Surtees: “The challenge is that if you go through something that is publicly available — and not through a remote VPN access — it can be a free-for-all for a variety of problems. It’s going through the ether, and once you leave the wired world, it becomes even easier for people to prey on you.” This includes using work devices to access work information in an unsecured manner, or, said Surtees, even worse, through a personal device that is completely free of enterprise-grade protection.

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