Online retail has a lot to fear from the High Street. That may sound counter-intuitive, particularly given recent estimates that some 85,000 retail sector jobs have been cut in the past year. Indeed, the story of retail over the last quarter of a century has been the steady encroachment of online shopping on traditional bricks-and-mortar shops, powered by lower overheads, greater consumer choice and convenience, and huge economies of scale.
But with all the convenience of buying goods online, and millions being pumped into digital consumer journeys, the complete interaction on screen is a soulless, anodyne experience compared to the full spectrum of experience that an instore environment allows. And as we are seeing in everything from transportation to customer service, experience is everything.
We seem to have been waiting for a retail renaissance for years, and the shuttered shops that line so many high streets is testament to the difficulties that the sector has struggled with for so long. But traditional retailers are battling back by focusing on the unique advantages they will always hold over online marketplaces like Amazon: the ability to touch, feel and sample products; to receive expert advice from informed and impartial shop assistants; and to immerse themselves in enthralling retail experiences. That’s why the rollout of 5G promises promises to have a positive impact on the retail sector.
Creating memorable retail experiences
The introduction of 5G technology is not just an incremental telecoms technology improvement. The step up from 4G to 5G is truly transformational, with the potential to reach speeds of 10 Gbps. With minimal latency and pervasive connectivity, it opens up an array of possibilities for retailers and their technology teams to supercharge innovative consumer experiences. This includes the ability to provide highly personalised engagement to consumers, powered by seamless connectivity and ultra-fast response times.
But it’s not network speed alone that will revolutionise the all-important customer experience. The key for retailers is to use 5G’s potential to identify the avenues where the technology can be applied intelligently and to provide new, compelling experiences that were hitherto impossible. From adaptive digital signage that displays personalised information to each customer, to interactive mobile apps, to virtual changing rooms and other augmented and virtual reality applications, 5G is the fundamental foundation for all manner of new technologies that has the potential to transform the retail experience.
Added insight; better retail operations
It’s not just about the new services that retailers can provide to customers: 5G is also crucial to understand these customers and tailor the experiences that they deliver. Every consumer interaction potentially gives retailers invaluable insight, either at the individual or aggregated level.
Given the massive amounts of information that is generated and delivered over 5G networks, retailers will be able to gather unique insight based on consumer device data, dwell time, purchase history and social media footprint from their social media accounts. Linked with the device ID, this will allow retailers to predict, activate and influence consumer’s buying behaviour more accurately.
This insight will enable them to refine everything from their supply chain operations, real-time merchandising messaging and promotions, personalised signage, in-store and in-app communications, and VR- or AR-enabled services like adaptive “magic mirrors”.
What’s more, as 5G technology becomes pervasive across IoT devices, data from wearables and sensors will be available to blend seamlessly with in-store screens and displays to personalise the customer experience. (For example, they could suggest which shoes might be most suitable to a customer’s activity levels, or which mattress to recommend for their sleep patterns.)
Another key example where this will be applicable is to provide a boost to in-store analytics. This will lead to real-time demand trends and availability management, as well as price comparisons and promotion-hunting being available to consumers across levels.
The ability to track and monitor store inventories in real-time – allowing consumers seamlessly to order online for home delivery if their choice is not available in store – is another area where the quick response times powered by 5G will make a big difference for consumers seeking great retail experiences. And finally, in the post-purchase lifecycle, the ability for consumers to get instant connectivity to invoke customer service intervention, video call and AR -augmented assistance for service will become more commonplace.
Obstacles to overcome
Of course, there’s more to delivering the next generation of retail experiences than putting 5G networks in place. The key challenge for retailers is to make sure that they have long-term strategies for the services that they will deliver over these new networks – and for how they use the data that is generated.
Another challenge will be to enable consumers to unplug from the in-store Wi-Fi that is currently used to track them, and to educate them on the benefits of switching to the in-store 5G network. The trade-off for consumers to have privacy against free Wi-Fi access might not hold any more, so the retailers would need to find ways to popularise their interactive apps more than they do currently.
Retailers and marketers, alike, both need to watch out against an overkill on unclean, aggregated data, which might lead to unreliable insights. Similarly, they need to ensure that they have a strategy for managing the vast increase in data that 5G will bring, ensuring that teams across ecommerce, marketing, personalisation and, of course, in-store staff can share data and work together.
If they can do this, physical stores will enable the types of singular, powerful customer journeys that will power the High Street’s renaissance – and take the battle to the behemoths of online retail.