IoT could offer a major boost for the high street – if retailers get their tech priorities right

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The Internet of Things (IoT) is up there with the biggest emerging worldwide tech trends.  It’s all about connecting just about anything to the internet, and using that connectivity to send and gather data, control connected devices to create better products, experiences and services.

As a result, it’s attracting growing interest and investment across the high street retail sector. From smart shelves that monitor stock levels and beacons that send personalised offers to customers throughout the store, to automated checkouts and even entirely self-serve stores, IoT offers a huge range of operational and customer experience opportunities for high street retailers to up their game.

In particular, the prospect of interacting with customers in ways that online retailers just can’t match is hugely promising.  Retailers are already implementing customer activity tracking to improve shop floor layout. Alongside personalised adverts and offers, IoT can give the high street something it’s been looking for throughout the digital shopping revolution – an edge.

Underpinning this diversity, what every IoT application has in common is the need for reliable connectivity.  The challenge is, even before the IoT bandwagon has really gained momentum, retailers face huge difficulties with network reliability and downtime.  The issues are inextricably linked – if there’s no connectivity, there’s no IoT.

Recent research carried out at RetailEXPO by Cradlepoint underlines the technology paradox facing retailers.  While most retail professionals (72%) said that technologies like the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be their organisation’s biggest IT challenges over the next five years, a similarly large majority of those surveyed (75%) are still experiencing unplanned network downtime and outages impacting business during peak hours.  If you’re a high street retailer with IoT ambitions but unreliable connectivity, that’s not going to end well.

Connect more, wire less – the road to 5G

Fast, reliable network connectivity in the form of wireless Internet is already widely available – both as an emergency failover and as a primary connectivity option.  It has the flexibility and speed to provide consistent connectivity, even when traditional wired lines go down. IoT offers some exciting technologies, but retailers need to prioritise the foundations of these now – and that’s reliable Internet connectivity.

There’s also lots of excitement and growing awareness about the arrival of 5G, a transformational technology that will take something very familiar in wireless internet and make it orders of magnitude better.  Visualising the difference between the 4G-based connectivity of today and where 5G will take us is like comparing a regular A-road to an upgraded smart motorway.

The impact will be better connectivity speed, less latency (or network lag), and for retailers, it will open up a whole range of new options allowing them to add mobile wireless connectivity to build completely new applications and to improve the customer experience.

Wireless internet has already become part of the fabric of society – and business – and is poised to become even more fundamental.  Yet 47% of retail professionals surveyed at RetailEXPO do not think their organisation is prepared to adopt 5G technology. But it is important to think of this adoption as a pathway – not a destination.  The pathway to 5G will build on current 4G and Advanced LTE technology, taking something that retailers rely on massively every day – their internet connectivity – and allowing them to confidently invest in improving this over time.  The technology is all about doing things better than before – but the process is happening now.

Many retail professionals are looking for IoT to transform the customer experience and drive footfall back into bricks and mortar stores.  But for those retailers who have still not implemented reliable connectivity, it will be impossible to take advantage of these emerging technologies set to revolutionise the retail industry in the coming years yet again.