January 3, 2005, 12:00 AM

Retailers continue to warm up to wi-fi

At Canada’s Mac’s Convenience Stores, wi-fi wireless web access complements its strategy of luring customers with café-style seating areas.

Wireless fidelity, barely on the retail scene two years, is becoming a common ingredient in the offerings of retailers as a way to drive traffic and revenues. At Mac’s Convenience Stores Inc., based in Calgary, B.C., wi-fi is being used as another tool in its policy of making its stores-which offer café-style seating areas for customers-more appealing, says Randy Weins, category manager for western Canada.

Mac’s recently rolled out wi-fi-enabled ZapLink kiosks in 34 stores in the Vancouver metropolitan area, the first leg of a plan to place kiosks in more than 200 stores in western Canada. The kiosks, from Info Touch Technologies Corp., offer a range of features that provide service for customers and revenue streams for Mac’s.

Mac’s customers can log onto the Internet through the kiosks to use e-mail, pay their utility bills or purchase ringtones or games for cell phones, among other services. They can also print out coupons offered by suppliers of products sold in Mac’s stores. And because the kiosks also serve as gateways for wi-fi high-bandwidth Internet access, customers with wi-fi-enabled laptops or handheld computers can log on for full web access on their own devices while relaxing at a table-a drawing card that fits into the Mac’s strategy of giving customers multiple reasons to enter its stores.

Mac’s earns revenue in multiple ways: It shares in the wi-fi access fees of $9.95 per day or $34.95 per month; it earns commissions through online advertising that InfoTech arranges with consumer goods suppliers, and it shares in other transaction fees, such as when customers purchase cell phone games over the kiosk. Then there’s extra in-store traffic. “With customers coming in to pay bills and use the kiosk for other purposes, they may end up purchasing other store products,” Weins says.

Mac’s has joined a growing number of retail chains that have begun offering wi-fi as a key part of value-added services to draw people into their stores. Barnes & Noble Inc. recently began making wi-fi access available in more than 600 bookstores under an agreement with SBC Communications, whose FreedomLink Wi-Fi also provides web access in thousands of locations, including UPS Stores and McDonald’s restaurants.

Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a chain of coffee and tea shops, is rolling out FreedomLink Wi-Fi in 144 locations in California, Nevada and Arizona. “We are eager to offer our customers this service,” says Lisa Steinkamp, director of marketing. “This is a natural extension of the comfort zone we’ve created in our stores.”

And there’s a more to come: SBC says it expects to be in 20,000 wi-fi locations by the end of next year. m

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