5G lays the foundation for a brick-and-mortar revolution.

Still wondering how 5G will affect business as we know it? Consider an industry that’s already undergoing rapid transformation: retail.

A new report from Forrester Research, “The CIO’s Guide To 5G In The Retail Sector,” says 5G has huge disruptive potential to enable fast, convenient, and transparent retail services and experiences that discerning consumers will want and eventually expect. 

And at a time when faster insights into customer behavior and preferences—and equally fast operational changes—are vital to competitive success and delivering exceptional customer experiences, the 5G era may hold the key.

Powering a new era of customized, convenient retail.

Forrester maintains that the future of 5G “has the potential to speed up the transformation of the retail sector by delivering important technology building blocks to frictionless end-to-end consumer experiences, in the form of enhanced mobile broadband; massive machine-type communications; and ultra-reliable, low-latency communications.”

Most digital retail strategies today are based on a combination of connectivity technologies such as 4G, Wi-Fi, radio frequency identification (RFID), near-field communication (NFC), and Bluetooth. But as many retailers work to differentiate themselves with more personalized, convenient experiences and services, the need for faster, more reliable, and device-inclusive connectivity has jumped.

Emerging 5G networks are a potential game-changer for retailers looking to deliver more value and gain more actionable insights across everything from merchandizing to store experience to point of sale. Advancements in 5G connectivity could provide important opportunities:

  • Saving more throughout the supply chain: Each node in a 5G network can support many more devices than 4G, providing the potential for significantly faster average download speeds and far lower latency. This has vast potential to optimize supply chains in 5G-enabled Internet of Things (IoT) services. For instance, the massive machine-type communications abilities expected of 5G could improve product tracking capabilities—where a pallet of goods or even an individual product could be monitored from departure at the factory through interstate transit to store delivery. This isn’t just practical for tracking perishable goods or pharmaceutical products with a limited shelf life, but also keeping suppliers, couriers, and even retailers’ own employees accountable. This kind of next-level data accuracy and timeliness could minimize wasted time and inventory, in turn empowering retailers with unprecedented cost-efficiency, agility, and confidence.
  • Redefining multisensory shopping experiences: Forrester says that future 5G connectivity could enable augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) capabilities that would change the way brands and consumers interact. For example, a retailer could “guide” a consumer through a physical store via an AR or VR overlay on a smartphone screen—to the exact location of a product of interest. Already, numerous prominent retailers, such as Target and Walmart, are exploring video and VR-based shopping assistance to allow shoppers to try a product before they buy it. With the future 5G era, we could be seeing facial expression-driven displays, wearable “display” rooms with personalized real-time renderings, and even more transformative experiences taking center stage.
  • Personalizing engagement throughout the customer lifecycle: How well retailers conduct interactive and ongoing engagements with customers before, during, and after sales are among the new benchmarks for merchants. Yet another area where 5G could dramatically affect retail is that it may boost the possibilities for big data-generated insights about customers. By supporting many more sensors in stores, integrating social media, loyalty program details, and other data, and enabling more powerful, cloud-based analytics in near-real time, eventually 5G could add value to insights generation and usage. These data-based insights would create opportunities for mass-customized and relevant services for consumers, such as personalized shelf displays, predictive inventory management, and real-time integration of external partner data sources. Soon, some stores could be functioning more like personal shoppers.

Approach 5G with the right expectations—and conversations.

While the 5G era offers immense long-term potential, retailers need to understand where it can help them in the near term. This starts with understanding how different 5G networks are currently being built from different bands of wavelength spectrum.

Where high-band millimeter wave frequencies offer super-fast data transmission in small areas but can’t penetrate buildings, mid-band frequencies offer a balance of speed and range, covering broader areas with fast speeds. But it’s low-band frequencies, the kind T-Mobile uses in their advanced networks, that can provide significant benefits for distance and signal penetration.

Forrester is right to point out that “Retail customers will not immediately change their shopping habits because of 5G.” Indeed, the first group to benefit from 5G may be your own employees—from possibilities of finishing inventory with fewer device errors per shift, handling checkouts faster, or receiving shipments at the loading dock with fewer lost items. As retailers and other companies start reporting these behind-the-scenes operational benefits, opportunities to enrich customer experiences will naturally take shape. 

It’s not a question of when 5G will matter because it’s already here—and being piloted by countless organizations. The question is: Have you started discussing a 5G strategy for what your customers would like to have now AND in the future?

To learn more about 5G possibilities in retail, check out what Forbes and other industry experts are predicting

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