Few would argue that the internet has become a vital part of everyday life. A recent Ofcom report revealed that, at 58 per cent of those researched, the market penetration of smartphones in the UK is one of the highest in Europe, highlighting exactly how dependent consumers have become on mobile internet access.

With tablets such as the iPad also becoming increasingly popular – now at 19 per cent penetration – many businesses are making the most of the mobile boom by finding ways of reaching potential and existing customers via their mobile device.

Retailers in particular have embraced mobile, with major high street names such as Marks & Spencer not only launching mobile sites, but also offering customers free in-store WiFi. This allows customers to go online while in the store, letting them browse the internet, use social media, or research reviews and pricing for products.

WiFi has added to the experience of visiting the store – making the most of mobile to communicate effectively with customers and drive increased sales.

With this in mind, there is a clear opportunity for rail operators to adopt a similar strategy, tapping into the mobile boom as a way of not only improving the customer experience at stations but also driving sales for in-station venues such as cafes and restaurants.

Making the station a go-to location

The modern rail station is no longer a thoroughfare passed through by commuters on their way to work or to the shops. Across the UK, major rail hubs are being transformed into destinations in their own right. The likes of London St Pancras, London Waterloo and recently renovated stations like Manchester Piccadilly are leading the way – with big name retail outlets, cafes, bars and restaurants.

For businesses, the idea of making a rail station a destination venue holds clear opportunities. Take Birmingham New Street for example (see page 41), which is in the midst of a £600 million regeneration project. The station is used by more than 40 million people annually. It is also the busiest rail hub outside of London, with more than 4.3 million passengers changing trains at the station every year. Such high footfall provides major sales potential for any retail or hospitality store located there and mobile can play a big part in attracting those customers and ensuring they have the best possible in-venue experience.

The internet has created a generation of consumers used to instant and unlimited information about all manner of topics. Providing this same kind of service at a station is a great way of giving the customer what they want. It’s also a way of communicating with them more effectively, increasing loyalty and boosting sales.

Maximising mobile’s potential

Stations offering a free WiFi service can set up a branded landing page which customers are directed to once they log-in. This page can be used to provide advertising at station-based cafes and restaurants. Or it can be used to point shoppers in the direction of sales at certain venues, or alert them to new store openings.

The marketing potential is also great, with stations able to analyse anonymised customer data to understand people’s viewing habits and preferences when logged into the WiFi service. In doing this, they gain a far better profile of those people visiting the station and can use that intelligence to target shoppers with tailored mobile advertising to ensure ads reach the right person, at the right place, at the right time. In addition, the advertising space on the landing page can also open up new revenue streams.

It is this kind of multi-strand mobile service that can help cement a rail station’s status as a destination in its own right, and free WiFi is a vital tool in this. The ultimate goal should be to maximise the footfall and sales potential of each in-station venue. By providing a better service to visitors and using mobile to engage with them in a subtle but effective way, rail operators can help both themselves and their venue partners boost sales and revenues.

A modern, financially successful rail station requires a modern approach to customer service. In a world where mobile is so popular, this provides a great way to reach consumers and turn footfall into revenue. With global tablet shipments expected to reach 210 million units in 2013* mobile shows no signs of slowing down. The time is now for rail operators to start to capitalise.