Restaurants Add Free Wi-Fi to the Menu

By Julie Ritzer Ross, Contributing Editor | April 08, 2015

Free Wi-Fi isn’t just for hotel guests anymore.  Restaurant operators are increasingly adding the amenity in an effort to satisfy the growing number of customers who expect and demand to be able to use their mobile devices everywhere, without depleting their own data allowance.

It’s a smart move: the availability of complimentary Wi-Fi access is becoming an increasingly significant factor in consumers’ choice of restaurants, says Jackie Rodriguez, an analyst and senior manager at food industry research and consulting firm Technomic (www.technomic.com). About 40% of participants in a recent study conducted by the Chicago-based company deemed free Wi-Fi an “important” or “very important” consideration in restaurant selection—second only to whether an establishment includes such information as menus on its website.  Sixty-five percent of individuals polled said they “absolutely expect” quick-service restaurants to provide complimentary Wi-Fi, “and Wi-Fi is still more important to consumers in general than mobile-based features,” Rodriguez notes.

Besides allowing restaurants to better satisfy customers’ mobile connectivity needs, boost sales and cultivate repeat business, free Wi-Fi helps to attract patrons who might otherwise dine elsewhere. This includes 18- to 34-year-old consumers, who until the recession were the heaviest restaurant users, but in the past few years have reduced their restaurant visits by an average of 50 per person annually, according to consumer research consultancy NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y.
                        
At Rocky River Springs Fish House (www.rrsfh.com) in Norwood N.C., free Wi-Fi has expanded the customer base to include a younger crowd of millennials and families and sparked a bump in sales. Diners connect to the Internet via a TWC WiFi Hotspot as part of a Time Warner Cable Business Class (business.timewarnercable.com) solution that also encompasses Internet, telephone, and television services.

“Before we added free Wi-Fi, our clientele was mostly older, and sales were down,” states Stan Efird, co-owner. “Now that we have it, we’re on par with other local restaurants. Younger people are coming in and coming back,” significantly reversing the sales slump.

Complimentary wireless Internet access also facilitates customer engagement. In some establishments, diners who are availing themselves of the Wi-Fi connection for the first time enter basic information about themselves on the carrier’s wireless homepage. They are then automatically recognized at every subsequent sign-in at that establishment and all units of the same chain, with customized “welcome back” messages and promotional offers immediately pushed to their devices.

“Depending on the provider, restaurants can also capture a lot of information about their customers by seeing which sites they visit most frequently and other aspects of their online behavior,” Rodriguez adds.

Maximizing WiFi benefits with smart strategies
For the 13-unit, Boston-based J.P. Licks Ice Cream-Yogurt-Coffee (www.jplicks.com) dessert café chain, preventing diners’ access to Wi-Fi from interfering with business operations (including, but not limited to transaction processing) is essential. The configuration of J.P. Licks’ Wi-Fi service, delivered by Comcast Business (www.business.comcast.com), fits the bill: credit card processing, business transactions, and internal communications occur over a private network, while a public XFINITY Wi-Fi Hotspot affords guest access to the Internet at a speed of 15Mbps, notes Al Cripps, IT manager.

Because it is removed from the private network, “the hotspot doesn’t take away from our own bandwidth,” Cripps observes.  “We aren’t sacrificing employee productivity or transaction speed to give customers what they want.”

Operators have found that a similar balance can be achieved by implementing two sets of SSIDs and VLANs—one each for guest and business use. Solutions from network service providers like Avaya (www.avaya.com) and Hughes (www.hughes.com) accommodate multiple network set-ups in restaurant environments. Hughes has also incorporated network optimization tools into its service menu that prioritize access to bandwidth, giving priority to business data traffic and applying bandwidth restrictions at the user level.

Establishing airtight Wi-Fi network security is imperative to Wi-Fi success as well. Most of Hughes Networks’ restaurant clients employ wireless intrusion detection systems (WIDS) and wireless intrusion prevention systems (WIPS) for this purpose. Many add content filtering tools that screen for and prevent access to objectionable content and risky websites.

For Rocky River Springs Fish House, “keeping the public and private networks separate and apart from each other and having two routers has really done the trick security-wise,” Efird notes. “We haven’t had any security issues at all.”

There is the issue of ascertaining whether touting free Wi-Fi yields adequate ROI. According to Rodriguez, Technomic advises its clients to evaluate sites frequently to gauge the impact of the amenity on sales, check size, and repeat business. Applied Predictive Technologies (www.predictivetechnologies.com) now offers Test and Learn For Sites, a test management solution designed to allow restaurant executives to forecast the impact (including the financial impact) of initiatives and capital investments before moving ahead with them.

Savvy operators also enlist strategies and policies to keep guest Wi-Fi usage equitable and enhance the customer experience. Although free Wi-Fi can encourage diners to stay longer and purchase more items, some may order only a beverage or nothing at all, then contribute to slow table turn by lingering far too long over whatever (if anything) they have ordered. At Lyme Café At the Farm in Lyme, Conn., and Old Saybrook Café At the Train Station in Old Saybrook, Conn. (www.farmcoffee.com), patrons who are Comcast customers and therefore possess Comcast log-in credentials have unlimited access to free Wi-Fi through the XFINITY Wi-Fi Hotspot. Other patrons’ time is “maxed at one hour” to prevent customers from taking unfair advantage of the free service, explains Carol Adams Dahlke, owner.

Meanwhile, like patrons of Rocky River Springs Fish House, J.P. Licks customers are not subject to restrictions on Wi-Fi time, and table tents carry a friendly reminder to be considerate of fellow patrons when enjoying the privilege. However, not all patrons cooperate, and management has taken notice. “We’ve looked at several methods of metering Wi-Fi, and are leaning towards a token/code system,” Cripps states. “This would give an hour of access to all patrons with any purchase, or require them to request an access code from the cashier.”

Insight from the retail industry is proving that offering Wi-Fi access to guests is emerging as a useful method to build customer engagement, and ultimately grow the bottom line. A recent study conducted by IHL Group (www.ihlservices.com) and sponsored by AirTight Networks (www.airtightnetworks.com) and Earthlink Holdings (www.earthlink.net) found that more than a quarter of retailers are finding increases in customer loyalty due to in-store Wi-Fi. “Up to 82% of retailers have already deployed in-store WiFi and nearly 28% report increased customer loyalty since deploying the technology,” said Greg Buzek, founder and president of IHL. “Not surprisingly with these results, 34% of those already using WiFi are upgrading capacity in 2015.”

Once analysis of the final study data is complete, IHL, EarthLink and AirTight plan to release a benchmarking tool to enable retailers to see where they stack up, learn best practices, and develop a technology roadmap that differentiates the store experience and supports business growth objectives.  

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