Recent events have had a significant economic impact across nearly all industries. Unforeseeable changes in consumer behaviour will inevitably follow. Has the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a fatal blow to the already-struggling brick-and-mortar industry? Can the physical shopping experience ever recover from the massive shift to online shopping that currently, is the only channel available to retailers?
In September 2019, which now seems like a lifetime ago, we wrote an article for Daily News at Sibos on how mobile commerce is about to come into its own. We believe that our vision is still valid.
In technical terms, 5G delivers lower latency and higher throughput on mobile devices. In layman’s terms, it speeds up mobile connectivity a hundred times over. And speed means big changes for many industries – not just for payments.
In short, 5G will bring the vast power of the cloud closer to the end-user, which in turn will improve the mobile shopping experience. How? In the blink of an eye, large amounts of data will be relayed from your phone to a remote data centre in the cloud, where it will be analysed by a super-powerful artificial intelligence (AI), before being returned to you in new, exciting, useful ways. Take these examples, for instance.
Imagine an augmented reality (AR) clothes fitting experience, in which the store app takes a photo of you taken with your phone camera and overlays the clothes you select onto the image. Or, using your phone camera to select and measure new furniture by pointing it at the exact spot in your living room where you envision that plush new sofa, and seeing it appear there suddenly via augmented reality technology. Or even designing (and immediately ordering) an entire landscape for your backyard, after walking through it with your tablet. All this and more could fast become the new norm.
By powering new mCommerce experiences like these, 5G adoption can become a major growth driver in boosting sales. But it won’t only affect the remote, online experience.
A lifeline to brick-and-mortar stores
Let’s be honest: traditional retail models aren’t just unfit for a sudden imposing of quarantine measures – they were struggling in the connected world way before this pandemic hit. And now, with some consumers still staying at home and others accustomed to remote shopping proper support of online commerce as a fully-fledged channel is no longer a growth strategy; it is a matter of survival.
However, eCommerce alone will not suffice: the retail gap – that is, the decrease in consumer spending – is only partially filled by online channel purchases.
The retail spend will probably rebound, but nowhere near pre-COVID levels. The decline in physical store shopping will continue. In these circumstances, retailers will have to revolutionise their consumer experience to lure customers back into their stores.
Low latency, ultra-fast mobile internet can usher in the sought-after cross-channel convergence in the offline-meets-online retail space. 5G connectivity will power exciting new Internet of Things (IoT) applications, meaning that sensor-equipped devices can be networked together with AI capabilities to create new retail experiences.
The potential of this is embodied by cashier-less retail experiences such as Amazon Go stores. Customers enter these stores by scanning their Amazon Go app at the turnstile. They then take products off the shelves and walk out of the store with them. An instore network of sensors and cameras uses machine learning and facial recognition to track everything the customer picks up, associates it with their Amazon account, and instantly takes payment.
5G is the connective tissue that can bring it all together for retailers who aren’t tech giants. The network lets these smart devices and systems talk to each other quickly and reliably enough to facilitate an invisible checkout experience – one that occurs in the background, without the customer ever having to think about it.
Sensor-equipped devices and cameras are cheap and readily available, and ultra-fast 5G connectivity will make things like facial recognition technology more accessible to retailers. This creates the capability to instantly transmit the stream from an in-store camera to an external facial recognition AI and receive the analysis immediately – without substantial capital investment in processing capacity.
The result will be a seamless shopping experience. What’s more, having a store representative physically present to provide assistance could become completely optional – an important feature in the post-pandemical world.
Mainstream 5G adoption isn’t going to happen overnight. The upgrade of the physical infrastructure to support the network will take time, and the necessary mass production of 5G-capable components for end-user devices isn’t yet in place, meaning that it will take time before compatible smartphones will become widely available.
There are also COVID-19 related effects delaying adoption; for a start, the pandemic caused the postponement of the Olympic Games, which was supposed to be the compelling global event for 5G rollout.
The pattern of the 5G rollout will also vary by region. Countries such as China, Japan, and Korea are likely to see fast, widespread deployment of 5G mobile broadband. But in Europe and the US, where mobile broadband is already widespread, there isn’t much immediate demand for the 5G upgrade, and progress on that front will be a little slower. It’ll also be a few years before the relevant AR, AI, and smart store solutions reach the necessary levels to service mass retail markets.
However, one thing is certain: as 5G deployments pick up pace across the globe, consumer appetite for them will grow. As Amazon Go type stores become increasingly widespread, it won’t be long before these 5G-enabled retail applications become not just a nice-to-have, but something that customers expect as standard. It might be a good idea to think now about how you could implement them in your business.
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