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"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough," said noted technology guru Mario Andretti.

In the next year, hundreds of retailers across North America are going to embrace that principle, and in doing so will be pulling a complete 180° hairpin turn from their previous attitudes towards wireless.

While free WiFi access is practically ubiquitous in the common areas of malls, coffee shops and restaurants, the interior of most big box retail stores has been a virtual WiFi no-mans-land for customers. That wasn't an accident, either.

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"Why," asked the average retailer, "should we give our customers a tool that will allow them to comparison shop? We don't stock our competitors' catalogues, so letting our customers have high speed access to the internet - on our nickel - will only encourage them to do things that hurt our sales."

Makes sense. Except for three little things:

  1. it wasn't stopping comparison shopping, it was only irritating customers;
  2. it turns out a little comparison shopping is a good thing for sales;
  3. allowing free WiFi access can create all kinds of cool opportunities for the retailers.

To begin, not providing WiFi access means that customers carrying smartphones and tablets have to use the cellular network. Big steel framed warehouse stores are cheap to build, fine for selling stuff - but they are hell on wheels for cell signals. So retail customers are comparison shopping on the wireless internet, but are frustrated by weak signals and slow speeds. Frustrated customers are a bad thing, and encouraging them to leave the store to get a better signal is even worse!

Next, it turns out that one of the biggest reasons that someone doesn't buy a TV or power tool is not that it is $10 cheaper somewhere else, it is that we are afraid it might be $100 cheaper. Once a potential buyer does a little checking and sees that there are no big savings to be had, the uncertainty has been removed. And most of us can't be bothered to drive a few kilometres in order to save a few bucks. New behavioural analyses are showing that mobile internet comparison shopping can increase sales.

Finally, when you give customers free WiFi, a retailer gets other benefits. Consumers spend more time in the store. They can access the store portal more easily and watch bandwidth intensive content like video demonstrations, tutorials or graphics rich catalogues, which would be difficult over cellular. They can find items more easily, learn about products, and free up sales associates. Even potentially more interesting - although a subject rife with all kinds of privacy issues - retailers may be able to glean information from the web sites the customers choose to visit. If I am selling home renovation supplies, knowing who my customers perceive as my biggest competitor for power tools is invaluable information.

Within two years, Deloitte thinks that up to half of all North American retailers will provide complimentary WiFi. Now maybe you don't care about retailers, and whether or not they provide WiFi access in their stores. But I think there are bigger lessons that come out of this example for all consumers and all businesses.

First, it is worth questioning long held assumptions. New technologies like WiFi, and new devices like tablets and smartphones are combining with new consumer habits in some very surprising ways. Across all businesses, we may learn that some - maybe even most - of what we thought was true, isn't.

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Second, putting more information in front of our customers allows us to rethink our business processes, and even our business models. Shifting from retail for a second, electronic banking is transforming the financial services industry. By allowing customers access to all their banking and investment information on a single page, financial services firms are able to create happier customers, doing more fee-generating transactions and with fewer employees, branches, or even costly ATMs.

Third - and this is the biggie in my view - the relationship between business and consumer will no longer be defined by "control." Businesses almost certainly overestimated their ability to control consumers in the past. But in 2010 and beyond, if a company thinks they can still control their customers, they are ignoring reality. Don't provide WiFi? They will use cellular (or not go to your store at all.) Don't go on Facebook or Twitter? They will talk about you anyway, and you will have no voice in that conversation.

The world of technology and telecommunications keeps getting faster: keeping up with those changes means that obsessing about or insisting on control is as useful as putting training wheels on Mario Andretti's F1 Lotus.

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