Free Wi-Fi: A Trend for Mall Properties

Originally published in The Center of Shopping 30 June 2016

Many U.S. Consumers Also Expect Interactive Kiosks, Portable Electronic Charging Stations While Shopping. 

In the mass media, omni-channel retail has garnered the lion’s share of attention concerning how technology affects malls. But a wide variety of technology already present in America’s regional and superregional centers has become an instantly recognizable, expected, and even at times influential force among consumers.

ICSC Research sought to measure feelings about this existing technology in a survey conducted on its behalf by ORC International. The survey, which took place on June 23-26, 2016, polled 1,024 adult Americans on which technology they expected to find in malls and which would influence them to shop, the impact of electronic advertising on shopping/spending decisions, and privacy considerations related to signing up for a mall rewards/loyalty program. The following analyzes the overall responses to these questions while offering breakdowns by age, gender and income.

Consumer Expectations for Technology in Malls

Despite some of the newer, highly innovative technologies that are being incorporated into malls, when it comes to expectations, consumers are focused on one thing: free Wi-Fi. Nearly seven of 10 (69%) adult Americans expect to find this feature in malls. The overwhelming preference for free Wi-Fi is owed partly to its prevalence in all kinds of settings now—libraries, coffee shops, even downtowns. Far fewer consumers expect any of the other technological features asked about. Roughly one-third of adults expect to find interactive kiosks/touchscreen directories/maps (35%), or charging stations for portable electronics (32%). Features with the lowest percentages are tablets in mall common areas and electronic parking guidance/signage, each indicated by only 14% of adults.

More millennials expect most of the technological features in malls compared to other age cohorts. Higher shares of Generation X consumers cite interactive kiosks/touchscreen directories/maps, electronic signage about mall-sponsored events/specials, and electric-vehicle charging stations. The largest difference among the age groups’ expectations relate to free Wi-Fi; 78% of millennials, 70% of Generation X and 66% of baby boomers believe this should be available.

Expectations for a mall mobile app and electronic commercial advertising also varied significantly between the groups. For example, 37% of millennials, compared to 20% of baby boomers, believe an app should be available, while 28% and 15%, respectively, of those same age cohorts cited electronic commercial advertising.

When it comes to gender, higher shares of females expect to find most technological features in malls compared to males. For mall VIP/loyalty rewards programs specifically, a greater portion of females (31%) expect this than males (19%).

Expectations for mall technology do not vary as much by income; however, certain groups cite particular features. For example, higher shares of the top earners expect free Wi-Fi, portable electronic-charging stations, electric-vehicle charging stations, and electronic parking guidance/signage. A higher proportion of the lowest income earners expect mall mobile apps, tablets in rest areas and electronic commercial advertising. Middle-income consumers ($50,000-$75,000) believe mall VIP/loyalty reward programs should be available more so than the others.

Technological Features That Influence Consumers to Visit a Mall

When asked about the technological features that influence consumers to shop at a mall that had the feature versus a mall that did not, with all other factors being equal, again, free Wi-Fi stood out. Slightly more than one-third (36%) of adults indicated they would choose to visit a mall that offered that versus one nearby without. For both mall VIP/loyalty rewards programs and charging stations for portable electronics, 15% of consumers said these influence their decision where to shop. The least influential features include electronic commercial advertising, electric vehicle charging stations and electronic parking guidance/signage.

   Males and females differed little over the overall impact of technology. However, females were influenced by a larger number of features compared to men. Similarly, income groups, differed only slightly on this point. One pattern that did stand out however, was that higher shares of the lowest-income consumers are persuaded by all features compared to the other groups.

By age, more millennials are convinced to choose one mall over another by all technology features. There are also more significant differences in the portion of each group that is influenced. For example, 49% of millennials will choose a mall with free Wi-Fi over one without, while 40% of Generation X and 25% of baby boomers will do the same. Also, the presence of a mall mobile app will sway 19% of millennials, but only 13% of Generation X and 4% of baby boomers.

Frequency of Wi-Fi Logins

Although a large majority of consumers expect free Wi-Fi and admit its significant impact in choosing one mall over another, do they actually use it when it is available? Nearly nine of 10 (89%) of adults who visited a mall this year noted that feature was available. Of them, just over three-fifths (63%) logged in at least one time, while the remaining 37% did not sign in, whether or not they knew if it was available. Among those who did log in, approximately one-third (34%) of consumers signed in all or most of the time, with slightly more indicating most rather than all. Another 11% of those who visited malls with free Wi-Fi logged in half the time and 18% occasionally.

The greatest gap in Wi-Fi logins was among the age cohorts. Significantly more millennials (79%) signed in at least once compared to 70% of Generation X and 41% of baby boomers. This pattern persisted for frequency of use, too, as nearly half (47%) of the youngest group logged in all or most of the time compared to 36% of the middle-aged and 18% of the oldest cohorts.

   More males than females tended to log in to free Wi-Fi when available and they did so more often, with 39% signing in all or most of the time versus 30% of females. By income, approximately four of 10 (41%) of lowest-earning consumers signed in all or most of the time compared to 28% of the most affluent.

Reasons for Signing Into Wi-Fi

The number-one reason cited by mall consumers this year for logging onto Wi-Fi, was to save data on their phone plan, as indicated by nearly half (48%) of them. The other top reasons for using Wi-Fi were to obtain a better Internet connection and to receive basic electronic coupons and other promotions.

Between males and females, the biggest difference in reason given was to receive electronic coupons and other promotions. One-third of women (33%) logged on to receive these specials, compared to about one-quarter (26%) of men. This same reason was also indicated by more baby boomers (32%) than millennials (28%). Higher shares of the youngest cohort (43%) signed in for a better connection versus 31% of the oldest group.

The Impact of Electronic Advertising on Shopping/Spending Decisions

Over three-quarters (76%) of American adults acknowledged electronic advertising in the mall(s) they visit. However, just under half of visitors to malls are actually influenced by what they see. More specifically, of mall consumers who admitted that advertising affected their behaviors, 31% are slightly influenced, while 14% indicated a significant influence.

There was a large difference by age when it comes to electronic advertising’s impact on shopping/spending decisions. This feature influences millennials (65%) far more than Gen-Xers (43%) or baby boomers (28%). Furthermore, over one-quarter (26%) of millennials are significantly influenced, while 11% of Generation X and only 6% of baby boomers noted the same.

   Though gender differences are not as wide-ranging as those for age, more men (47%) tend to be influenced by electronic advertising than women (42%). Similarly, differences among income brackets are fairly small. The lowest income consumers are the most likely among the brackets to admit this impact (49%), while only 41% in the top-earning group do.

Signing Up for Mall Rewards/Loyalty Programs

In their continuing effort to encourage mall visits and loyalty, some owners are implementing programs that reward shoppers who spend money. Not only are the benefits monetary (e.g. cash back offers on purchases), but they can also include exclusive property perks like VIP parking and invitations to private functions. As with similar initiatives, customers who opt in are often asked to provide basic personal information. However, with some of these newer programs, shoppers also register existing credit cards to track spending across all stores in the mall, rather than receive traditional loyalty cards from each retailer.

When asked about these programs and the possibility of signing up even if they had to provide basic personal information and register credit cards, over half of consumers (53%) indicated they likely would. One-fifth (20%) noted they were very likely to sign up while one-third (33%) weresomewhat likely. Roughly 30% said it was very unlikely they would register.

A much higher share of millennials (70%) were likely to sign up for these types of reward programs compared to 56% of Generation X and 37% of baby boomers.

   By gender, more females would likely participate than males and a higher share of those in the lowest income bracket would be willing to partake compared to consumers earning the most.

Conclusion

Virtual reality, driverless vehicles, robotics, cloud computing, and other high-tech innovations are on the minds of those tasked with imagining future malls and their tenants. But a wide range of well-established technological amenities, though without the buzz factor, have already lodged in consumers’ consciousness. Their overwhelming preference for free Wi-Fi and, to a lesser extent, interactive kiosks/directories and portable-electronic charging stations are probably a function of familiarity and convenience. Outside the home and office, adult Americans have gotten used to seeing these features in “third places” where they study, congregate or even move (airports and train cars). At the same time, these amenities in malls help consumers multi-task (e.g., surf the Web while they eat) or move more quickly to their destinations. They are now becoming a highly visible part of the mall landscape.