By the end of October 2019, four major mobile networks will have launched 5G services in the UK, and between EE, Vodafone, Three and O2, connectivity is currently available in 17 towns and cities across the country.  As the collective rollout accelerates, O2 plans to have services running in 50 locations by summer next year, and EE has said it will eventually switch on more than 100 5G sites every month

Momentum is building, and even though much of the early focus has been on smartphones, 5G represents so much more than a growing consumer tech trend.  The wireless data connectivity speeds offered by 5G could be as much as 100 times faster than standard 4G and is quicker and easier to install than fixed line broadband.  That’s a transformational boost in performance that will be a catalyst for huge change across the retail sector – especially on the High Street

But, amid talk of ‘rollouts’ and ‘tests’, there is no need to wait for ubiquitous 5G coverage to arrive for retailers to gain the competitive and operational benefits of high-performance wireless.  LTE is an existing, widely available and proven technology that is already providing the foundation for a wireless future in retail. What’s more, LTE is consistently being improved and upgraded. Soon, with the advent of Gigabit-Class LTE, this technology will provide as much as 80% of the value of 5G. 

Retailers are already on the pathway to 5G, using LTE technology as a ‘failover’ technology when fixed line broadband fails.  Similarly, retailers are also relying on LTE as a ‘day-1’ connectivity solution, when a new outlet or pop-up branch needs to be online right away.  This approach overcomes the delays retailers can face if they wait for a fixed line to be installed and activated. Soon, Gigabit-Class LTE will be increasingly used as the primary method of connecting retail outlets to the powerful and creative digital services that customers will demand.

But what really brings the future to life for High Street retail are those emerging applications and innovations high-speed LTE and 5G connectivity will power.  Services like augmented reality fitting rooms will upgrade the in-store experience for shoppers.  Personalised shopping services will connect retailers with customers via their smartphones, actually recognising them as they arrive in-store.  And digital advertising campaigns will receive a boost, as much more accurate location-based advertising becomes available. 

And that’s just the start.  Retailers are also beginning to trial in-store robots to help staff provide better customer service and improve stock management.  Elsewhere, automated stores have begun to appear, offering a checkout-free experience and another option for shoppers searching for convenience.  What all these diverse applications have in common is their need for reliable and secure connectivity running at very high speed.

In practical terms, imagine a situation where, in a competitive shopping environment, one retailer operates a very traditional model where customers browse without much additional input beyond polite offers of help and in-store promotional marketing.  Contrast that with a digitally enhanced experience that provides tailored, personalised information and special offers to shoppers as they move around the store. For today’s mobile generation, that’s a compelling message. In fact, it’s more than that – it will become an expectation.

Moving forward, High Street retailers will be in a much stronger position to invest in digital technologies that bring the real world and online shopping experiences much closer together.  Despite the gradual arrival of 5G networks and the exciting new services they enable, retailers that make a decisive move to understand how their customer experience strategy will develop will be in a better position to gain competitive advantage.

The bottom line is LTE connectivity is already giving bricks and mortar retail the opportunity to significantly improve the in-store digital experience and push back hard against online-only retailers who have seen so much recent spending momentum go their way.