A Welcome Disruption: 5G’s Retail Potential

It’s not often we see ‘disruptive’ technology stories that could benefit High Street retail ahead of online, but the recent launch of the UK’s first 5G-enabled mobile networks offer enormous potential for the future of physical retail.

5G is the latest, high-speed wireless data connectivity service which is set to be widely available across the UK in the next few years.  Why does this matter? Well, 5G is all about improvements in the speed and quality of wireless internet connectivity. If you think of 4G as an ‘A road’, 5G is like upgrading to a motorway – bigger, more reliable, and made for speed.

More specifically, why does it matter to High Street retailers?  Put simply, it could be a game-changer. 5G will be central to supporting the widespread adoption of transformational technologies that are already making the High Street retail experience more engaging and valuable for customers. 

There’s a huge range of emerging, creative ideas coming to market.  For example, interactive smart mirrors will allow shoppers to see how a particular piece of clothing will fit without needing to try it on, while also providing new ways for staff to interact with customers.  These mirrors can also leverage RFID tracking to help capture customer behaviour, recording data on how long customers spend in dressing rooms, how they react when an item doesn’t fit, and which items are most popular.

Facial recognition technology will also become part of the new retail experience.  By employing analytics to recognise a customer’s face, personalised offers will be provided via connected digital signage based on that individual’s preferences and shopping history.  

These applications, which are generally described as Internet of Things (IoT) or smart technologies, all rely on high-speed wireless connectivity to make them possible.  This fast Internet connectivity is the backbone of this new IoT landscape, and while 4G is already supporting IoT development, 5G will be the catalyst for even greater adoption. 

Back office benefits

Faster wireless connectivity is not just about customer-facing innovation.  Retailers have been leading the way in using existing 4G LTE technology to process payments, ensure better connectivity for peak selling seasons and to provide connectivity for remote or pop-up outlets.   They use network management tools to monitor and control connectivity for hundreds or thousands of locations, often with lean and agile IT teams. There’s also a big role for wireless internet today to help protect retailers against unplanned connection downtime, which can have an immediate impact on retail revenue – if a retailer can’t process payments, the whole outlet can grind to a halt.

The operational effect of 5G will be very similar.  Many retail organisations are already moving towards wireless as their primary connectivity with 4G LTE.  This has been central to the popularity of ‘pop-up’ stores, which are enabling retailers to collaborate, innovate and offer interesting new experiences to customers.  By the time 5G arrives this shift will be accelerating drastically.  

A pathway to new retail revenue

Ultimately, this is all about boosting High Street retail revenue.  5G will provide a whole range of new options allowing retailers to add mobile wireless connectivity to build completely new applications and to improve the customer experience.  Many of these applications will create entirely new business models beyond our current thinking. Consider this – in 2006, before the birth of 4G LTE, how many of us had imagined Uber or Instagram?  We are on the verge of a similar – and likely more revolutionary – jump in wireless technology applications. 

We are already seeing this trend develop with 4G LTE wireless technology, as retailers use it to provide connectivity for third-party services in-store.  A good example is Amazon lockers. Any retailer operating from a physical location can now place a locker at the back of their store. As well as providing new revenue streams and driving increased footfall, this demonstrates how new connected applications are bringing the online experience back into stores.  As 5G drives the adoption of many new interactive experiences for shoppers, this could be a welcome disruption to High Street retail.