Can 5G really revolutionise bricks and mortar stores?
Even if you’re an absolute technophobe, it’s hard to ignore the fanfare around the recent launch of the 5G network in the UK. It promises to be the best yet, including download speeds that are 10-20 times quicker than on the existing 4G network, which means better connectivity, less black spots and increased bandwidth for data transfer. It’s boringly technical, but for customers it means they can do things on their smartphone or connected device much quicker, which meets a specific need of today’s consumers.
So why does this matter in retail?
According to the latest data released by the ONS, online transactions are accounting for roughly one-fifth of all transactions and this has been consistent certainly throughout most of 2019. Add in the fact that of this, 64% of transactions are carried out on a mobile device and suddenly the importance of connectivity and data transfer speeds becomes clearer. With devices becoming ever-smarter, they are used not only to research and browse products but also to purchase, share details with friends and to arrange (or rearrange) delivery or collection.
Transforming consumer expectations
However, this is happening already and so the roll-out of 5G will, one could argue, only serve to make these interactions quicker and more intuitive. Where 5G is likely to make the most impact is in the innovation space and retailers really have the opportunity to be bold and brave. At a time when retailers are struggling to work out what the next big thing could be, 5G will bring with it an opportunity to offer technology-based experiences not just as part of the online shopping experience but also in their physical stores.
Adapting to new technologies
It is likely to be a key enabler for technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and even things like drone delivery. It will, or at least should, also act as a driver to improve the customer experience with a greater degree of customisation and the introduction of new channels.
Online shoppers will be able to benefit from the ability to virtually ‘try before they buy’ thanks to a mobile VR experience that lets them, for example, see what something would look like on them. This technology can also be used as a richer marketing tool, helping consumers still in the browsing stage get a taster of new products.
Critically for physical stores, many of which have struggled to adapt to integrating a more digitally-driven consumer experience, 5G will allow the introduction of powerful tools like AR which could transform the shopping experience. By allowing customers to focus purely on interacting with a specific retailer within the walls of their retail space, AR can help guide shoppers to specific products, demonstrate how to use or apply them and even show how products could look in a specific setting. It’s very clever technology!
The rise of the digital wallet
A generation of shoppers are already familiar with digital payments such as ApplePay or scanning a card to allow a payment screen to pull out the key information, but 5G could take this further by allowing a seamless integration of a customer’s account with their presence in a store and as a result, creating a payment interface that requires no actual human interaction. The increased capability of a 5G network offers so many more opportunities to integrate devices and data that the Internet of Things is likely to dominate the digital agenda for months and years to come.
Creating a richer pot of data
Faster connectivity will also help in the push for greater individualisation and personalisation. More digital interactions, whether online or generated though an individual’s presence instore, means more data can be captured and this can be used intelligently by retailers to better understand their customers and what’s important to them. This is key to enhancing their customer journeys and ensuring that at every step of an interaction with the brand, from its marketing to its social communication, and of course the actual purchase of a product, the customer feels cared for, listened to and that their expectations have been met.
Of course, it’s not just retail brands that will benefit from this. There’s likely to be an explosion of smart devices as the technology advances and becomes both more accessible and more affordable. 5G will mean more consistent connectivity and reliability as well as quicker interactions and responses. Through these devices, brands will need to understand how they adapt or evolve to offer an integrated journey through technology such as smart speakers, smart appliances and whatever next-generation technology is just around the corner waiting to make life easier for people in the home.
What will be interesting is seeing how the retail sector responds to the introduction of 5G. It’s hard not to reflect on the past few years and the struggles many retailers have had bringing together their online and offline customer journeys into a single, seamless interaction for their customers. Brand loyalty is increasingly fickle and those who have failed to invest in creating spaces that customers want to come back to time and time again, whether as part of their website, their physical stores and even in their social interactions, have visibly floundered. We’ve seen the demise of stalwarts of the highstreet and can, in part, attribute this to their lack of adaptability to what customers demand of them today.
It’s fair to say that there will be some investment needed, and in these economically uncertain times it can be hard to make strategically difficult decisions based on such new and untested technologies, especially in a retail environment. Structurally, it’s simple enough to undertake the necessary infrastructure work to enable a 5G connection within the built environment but thinking more broadly, it’s up to those in charge of the customer experience to really think about the benefits of embracing the opportunity and innovation 5G can bring. And if there’s no one thinking about this right now, perhaps that in itself should be a big red warning sign.
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