Offering customer-facing WiFi can do more than encourage customers to stay longer
Free Internet, once the realm of coffee bars that doubled as workspaces for people with laptops, has become part of some pizzerias’ customer relations and marketing strategies. Restaurant-goers want, even expect, free WiFi when they eat out. They want to post photos of their food on social media, avoid using up the data on their cellular plans, check e-mail and perform other tasks while they wait for their orders. Offering customer-facing WiFi can bring certain benefits to the eatery, but there are a few cautions.
“I feel free WiFi is a must for all businesses that have customers,” says Haluk Kantar, owner of HomeSlyce Pizza Bar, with six locations in the Baltimore area and Washington, D.C. “We have so much unused bandwidth, why not share it. It does not cost any more to share and it creates good will.”
HomeSlyce has a self-managed WiFi system that is self-healing, which means the system diagnoses and fixes problems automatically. Kantar monitors usage and makes adjustments and updates as needed.
Monitoring usage is important. Customers, not to mention neighbors, might try use the free internet connection to illegally download movies and games. “Since I manage our WiFi system, I have triggers in place when someone uses an exceptional amount of data,” Kantar says. “I analyze who they are and I can block them at any time. This does happen and I have gotten letters from my ISP stating someone is downloading illegal content.”
Some operators partner with technology companies to implement these controls and to manage other details. “Content filtering is a best practice,” says Henry Kurkowski, CEO and cofounder of OneWiFi in Indianapolis. He explains that years ago, people would sneak video cameras into movie theaters, make a DVD of the copyrighted movie and sell it from a blanket or card table on a city sidewalk. Today, pirating movies is much more high tech, and it involves Web sites called torrents.
“People look for public WiFi that doesn’t have those filters in place,” Kurkowski says. “If they do download something the Internet service provider will tell the restaurant, this was an illegal download, this is one warning. After the second warning they can shut off the Internet connection for the pizzeria location.”
One process that can help businesses protect themselves is to have users login when they want to use WiFi, and click on a box that indicates they agree to the terms of service. “After they login you can control the content,” Kurkowski says.
The login page also serves as a customer engagement tool. The operator can put their own brand on the login page, and if it’s a multi-unit eatery, customize the page to that particular location. “It’s a way to get more eyeballs to their page and connect them with catering, gift cards and loyalty programs,” Kurkowski says. “They can push that right to the customer’s phone or tablet or laptop every time. It’s great digital signage that doesn’t take any space in the pizza parlor.”
With some systems, customers have to enter their e-mail address to gain access to the complimentary WiFi. At Minsky’s Pizza, with locations in the Kansas City, Missouri area, an in-store device allows customer access to the free WiFi and enables the restaurants to capture their e-mail address. “We can then reach them via e-mail marketing to share promotions, discounts and special events,” says Brent Wittrock, Minsky’s pizza partner and general manager. “It’s a win-win scenario that has helped us grow our e-mail marketing database by 28,000 over 20 months, generating increased revenue across our 18 locations.”
Having WiFi makes it easier for customers to post on social media, which can help the restaurant. “People are on their phones, and they check in to the restaurant on Facebook,” says Aaron Hostetter, owner of Uncommon Pizza in Lititz, Pennsylvania. “Checking in lets other people know they are at Uncommon Pizza, having a good time with their friends.”
One drawback of offering free WiFi is people might order one slice of pizza and a beverage and sit at the table for hours, preventing lunch and dinner customers from finding a table. One way to prevent this is to set up the system so that the user can access WiFi for only half an hour or an hour and can log in only twice in a 24-hour period. That prevents campers or people who use the restaurant as their own low-budget office.
Some restaurants don’t have to worry about these campers. “When we’re busy is dinnertime, and that’s not when people are coming in to work on their laptops,” says Ned Lavelle, one of the owners and cofounders of Pinthouse Pizza Craft Brewpub, with two locations in Austin, Texas.
Instead, Lavelle says, people come in with their laptops during the late afternoon, which would otherwise be a slow daypart. “We are a third place for some guests,” he says. “We have a number of people who come in after work and they check e-mail, do some work on their laptop and have a beer and maybe a snack before they go home.”
He adds that the first location of Pinthouse used a residential router for WiFi, which was not enough bandwidth for the place. “It was a spotty signal,” Lavelle says, “The manager would have to spend time messing with it to reset it.” For the second location, Pinthouse made a bigger investment and signed up with a commercial provider.
Electrical outlets are also important. “If you’re building a new place you want to think about where people can plug their stuff in, from at the bar to the tables,” Lavelle says.
The costs for WiFi vary, but Kurkowski says restaurants typically have a closed WiFi system for their own point of purchase and other systems and adding a commercial router for customer-facing WiFi can cost as little as $2 per day. “It doesn’t cost very much at all,” he says. “If it brings in one person a day ordering a slice and a soda, it pays for itself.”
Nora Caley is a freelance writer who covers small business, finance and lifestyle topics.