Consumers are increasingly regarding free Wi-Fi internet access as a right rather than a privilege but it could also be lightening their wallets.
Shopping centre and cinema giant Scentre Group has analysed the air above the heads of shoppers in its Westfield malls in Australia and has found that those who tune in to its Wi-Fi are bigger spenders than those who don't.
Hearing the thoughts of Scentre Group's Westfield marketing director, John Batistich, on the topic, their behaviour can't easily be explained by smartphone ownership and disposable income alone.
"We've just done a study with Monash University speaking to 3000 of these users to understand whether they're coming back more frequently; whether they're spending more as a result of this service. And the answer is 'yes'," Mr Batistich said.
Speaking at Aruba Networks' Atmosphere Wi-Fi conference on the Gold Coast in November, Mr Batistich provided a glimpse of the detailed customer profiles that the company could build using wireless access data alongside that collected from other marketing channels.
Ticketless parking, email campaigns, increasingly precise location data and an unprecedented ability to map physical and digital behaviours have the potential to tell Westfield an enormous amount about their customers; even when they may be unhappy with their hairdresser.
Consumers were becoming more digitally engaged throughout the shopping process and they became more valuable the more they did, he said.
"For the customers who have touched a digital channel before they get into the mall – a physical space – and then for those customers who during their shopping visit are on their mobile being informed, their [sales] conversion [rate] is higher and their basket size is bigger," he said.
As a result, Scentre Group has started to view its air as among the assets in need of protection.
It's rolling out wireless internet access across all its Westfield sites and is on track to generate 20 million customer Wi-Fi sessions annually. That translates to about 600 per day in smaller malls and up to 2500 in larger malls.
Batistich was candid about the company's reasons for the rollout.
"We did it, to be blunt, because we wanted a location analytics platform. We wanted to understand what people did in our malls so we could start to acquire a profile so we could send them content that's relevant based on their previous physical behaviour," he said.
Batistich was able to demonstrate that Westfield could use Wi-Fi to help generate more than 470 interactions with a single shopper.
He didn't reveal the time frame.
Westfield isn't alone in seeing the value in mapping physical and digital behaviour. The concept has moved into public spaces.
Fed Square, the company the Victorian government has entrusted to manage one of Melbourne's primary pieces of social infrastructure, has finished the first phase of a major Wi-Fi rollout.
Fed Square chief executive Ron Gauci, who helped save the Melbourne Storm at the height of the NRL salary cap scandal, said the Wi-Fi move would make the area more commercially viable.
"They've got to be self-sufficient so they want to strengthen the commercial model," Mr Gauci said.
A wide-ranging view of the square's operation, which derives income from rents and parking, revealed the potential for wireless technology to improve its viability.
Each year, the square hosts 2000 events attracting about 10 million people.
Mr Gauci said little was known about the square's users.
"Once you start offering [Wi-Fi] services, you also start a process of engaging with people – understanding who is logged on, who is using the service, why they're using the service – so we wanted to take it to the next stage of deploying analytics behind that," he said.
"You start to look at the commercialisation opportunity and to spend more time and money is what we'd like them to do."
The writer travelled to Aruba Network's Atmosphere Wi-Fi conference as a guest of the company