How technology will improve the customer experience
Is brick-and-mortar dead? This has been the perennial fear as online retail began to take hold and flourish. Indeed, according to the US Department of Commerce, e-commerce is growing at a significantly faster clip than brick-and-mortar, 16% vs. 2% from 2016–2017. That said, digital is still a minority (13%) of total retail sales.
But positioning this evolution as a battle between brick-and-mortar and online is shortsighted. The advent of 5G promises to revolutionize and revitalize the entire retail sector in ways we are just starting to imagine. Here are some observations of retail’s future with the power of 5G behind it.
From the Physical to the Virtual
Today’s in-store retail experience is rather consistent with that of the past. You walk into a store and do your best to determine which retail items are the best for you within the confines of your available budget. You shuffle among the aisles, trying on this, handling that, reading labels and comparing various product characteristics until you settle on a final selection. Your choice of purchase is based on your physical interaction with it and any personal interactions with sales people regarding its best qualities.
But that traditional approach to retail may be changing. 5G wireless technology, with its higher speed, lower latency, and broad utility, may very well be the key catalyst in the launch of a great revolution in the way people shop and the way retailers present their product offerings. In fact, retail could soon be almost unrecognizable compared to what we see today.
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Minority Report” with Tom Cruise, you have an idea of the way some futurists imagine what the retail experience may become. In one scene, Cruise’s character is confronted with personalized marketing with product suggestions at every turn. Of course, current proponents of the virtualization of in-store customer experiences would argue that they need not seem so ominous.
But it’s clear that 5G will herald a host of interactions between human customers and computerized responses to their in-store activities. This may include virtual reality, augmented reality, digital signage, and voice recognition — among other features. And customers who opt in may find themselves immersed in a world of virtual retail reality. Get ready.
Transforming the Customer and Store Experience
In a paper by the IHL group called “Debunking the Retail Apocalypse”, authors Lee Holman and Greg Buzek reported that retail sales were up in 2017 despite the rise in online commerce. But they also advised that retailers need to invest in the customer experience at the store level. They said that “retailers must give customers a compelling reason to come into their stores.”
But what reason would that be? What would a transformed customer experience look like? The answer may be in technology.
Imagine that you walk into a department store in search of new clothing and you encounter the dressing room of the future. RFID tags allow the technology in the room to identify what you’re trying on and offer helpful suggestions and customizations. It can notify the salespeople to fetch different items. It can even easily allow you to post on social media or connect with friends for their opinions.
This kind of virtual shopping experience could make shopping for clothes a lot easier for customer and salesperson alike. Not to mention it would allow the store’s computing system to gather a wide array of sophisticated customer data for use in both marketing and sales decisions.
Or suppose you are sauntering through a store and you’re not sure what you want. But maybe a computer does. Using pattern recognition tied to previous customer buying decisions, computers using facial recognition techniques can take visual cues from your expressions and in-store behavior to offer you customized, specific buying suggestions.
Supply Chain Improvements
Another area that will benefit is supply chain. Store inventories can be tracked by IoT embedded sensors that report continuously back to remote computation systems. Imagine a “smart shelf”, where inventory can be determined in real-time. Out-of-stock status may become immediately apparent through 5G-connected software applications. 5G-powered inventory control can give managers a real-time view of their inventory — and maybe even prevent theft.
In case you haven’t noticed, pop up shops are increasing in popularity, literally popping up in highly trafficked areas selling interesting products before disappearing a few days later with equal suddenness. Increased connectivity is allowing nontraditional retailers to bring pop up shops to the market by enabling point-of-sale systems to process transactions. Imagine the further democratization of point-of-sale systems extending the ability for anyone to introduce commerce anywhere — farmers markets, street vendors, micro-mobility companies, and mom and pops.
The Value of 5G
So where does 5G fit in? The pace of innovation I’ve talked about in the previous sections would require a level of interaction that today’s wireless LANs and 4G mobile services cannot sustain in the long term, particularly as these technological advances require more data to be transmitted and at faster speeds. A ubiquitous 5G network environment can empower retail to move far beyond the traditional brick-and-mortar experience. Coupled with IoT, voice recognition, and camera-based identification, 5G will become simply a platform upon which innovators build a whole array of innovative retail services.
Much has been written about the technology, and I have discussed the history and impact of 5G telephony in several previous pieces as well as its impact on the healthcare, manufacturing, and transportation industries.
Who knows what 5G developers will come up with over the next few years? Many ideas may still be confined to the lab while engineers and designers test and improve their software. In the early days, 5G may just offer retail many of the same things that 4G does. It may not look much different, right away, but as it matures, the transformation of retail will become more apparent.
In general, 5G will offer a vast increase in in-store intelligence, greater efficiency, and improved delivery. The possibilities for 5G-powered retail, combined with artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analysis, and other cutting edge technologies, are seemingly endless.