Staying online while you shop: How wifi stacks up in NYC’s department stores

How do you do your gift shopping for the holidays? Online? In-store? A last minute panicked whirlwind battling crowds on the evening before your family get-together? Everyone has their own way of dealing with the rush that engulfs us at the end of the year when we part with our cash to find the perfect presents for our loved ones. But wouldn’t it be nice if we could make the whole experience a little less… stressful?

Shoppers scour Macy's for their holiday gifts (Photo by Flickr user Eric Mueller)

Shoppers scour Macy’s for their holiday gifts (Photo by Flickr user Eric Mueller)

For all of our complaints of being glued to our smartphones, shopping while connected can make the whole experience far more pleasant. Having access to the web lets your shopping partner flop on the comfy ‘man chair’ outside the changing room happily checking the score of the game, giving you plenty of time to try on different options without the audible sighs and watch glances. If you find a great gift on the pricier end of the spectrum, you can search online to see if you can find it somewhere else cheaper. This is only possible if you have a good data connection or access to wifi.

OpenSignal (the company that brought you the crowdsourcing app that gathers and maps data on cellular signal called — surprise surprise — OpenSignal) has developed a new app called WifiMapper. WifiMapper does exactly what the name implies: it shows you wifi hotspots on a map that you can use anywhere in the world. Like the OpenSignal app it works by crowdsourcing information on wifi networks that our users have connected to. We’ve collected information on almost 900 million hotspots.

This month, we’ve been looking at the data on wifi in shopping centers in Manhattan, New York, to see if shoppers can expect a calm and connected gift-buying experience.

Graphic by OpenSignal

Data collected Aug 1- Oct 31, 2015 (Graphic by OpenSignal)

We found that all of the stores we checked had wifi routers numbering into the hundreds, but Macy’s on West 34th street by far had the most with well over 4000. The Macysfreewifi ID was the name that popped up on the majority of these routers, so we can assume that these are intended for shoppers to use to keep well connected.

If you connect to that Macy’s network, you’ll be in good company. As you might expect, most people connected to a store’s official wifi network, such as Macysfreewifi, Bloomingdalesfreewifi and Lord&Taylor-WiFi, even though there were multiple options often available. This might be because shoppers trust them more than the other options.

Graphic by OpenSignal

Data collected Aug 1 – Oct 31, 2015 (Graphic by OpenSignal)

The amount of time that people spend connected to these hotspots also differs across these department stores. Customers at Macy’s had an average connection time of a little over an hour, while at Nordstrom Rack in Union Square and Saks 5th Avenue had average session lengths of less than 10 minutes. This could be because Macy’s has many routers so it could be easier to move around the store and stay connected, but its hard to say without further analysis. It could also be that shoppers at Saks and Nordstrom Rack are just incredibly efficient! it’s not just that customers spent less time on wifi at these stores. They often didn’t take advantage of the internet access when it was available. Of our users who had the option of connecting to the wifi at Nordstrom Rack, only 9% did.

Another find is that Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s used the most recent router technology, while Saks Fifth Avenue is behind the curve with a much older type, which could impact the connectivity experience. In Saks we found that routers there used an ancient wireless technology known 802.11b technologies while Macy’s Bloomingdale’s used more modern routers based on 802.11g or 802.11n technologies, which offer much faster speeds and can support more connections.

Wherever you’re planning to shop for your holiday gifts, it seems that all the major retailers do have some kind of wifi available, but not all wifi networks are created equal. If you want help finding them or planning your wifi-connected shopping trip in advance, download WifiMapper to help you stay connected.

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