3 ways 5G will boost retail

5G helps retailers deliver richer customer experiences, use their networks more efficiently, and better manage supply chain and logistics

by Michael Colaneri, Vice President of Global Business, Retail and Enterprise Solutions

Over the past few years, we’ve been learning how important 5G in retail is. It allows businesses to be agile and adapt quickly to unexpected changes in how customers buy goods and services. Today, having this ability must also include the hybrid workforce and remote workers. Maintaining reliable network connectivity and enough application bandwidth is essential to deliver a quality workplace and customer experience while also preparing the business for the future.

For a retailer, agility also means positioning yourself to take advantage of new technologies, gathering data, and using it to gain a competitive edge. With 5G, you can quickly respond to shifts in customer behavior, adjust to competitive challenges, streamline operations, and deliver richer experiences for customers.

Keep in mind, how each retailer may use 5G is unique. For some, the benefit may be in delivering a better customer experience or finding new revenue streams like pop-up locations. Others may be looking for ways to operate more efficiently. It’s important to think strategically by segment or location as well as looking at the whole business.

As the needs of your business evolve, it’s helpful to see 5G as an enabler of powerful solutions, not a solution in itself. Let’s look at the possibilities for 5G in retail.

What is 5G for retailers?

At AT&T Business, we think about 5G as enterprise-grade mobility. It’s not just a step up from 4G, it’s a huge leap forward. 5G is really three things: speed, lower latency, and greatly increased connectivity. Speed is how fast data travels. Latency is what kind of friction you have in that speed.

When you use technology to do something like process a transaction or find an item on a shelf, how quickly do you get a response? Consumers don’t want to wait, and they may interpret a slow response as something a lesser brand would do.  Is it instantaneous or is there a delay? Lower latency equals faster response time and higher customer satisfaction. So, for richer experiences, it’s a game-changer.

As businesses become more mobile, they connect more people and devices to their networks. If those networks use 5G connectivity, they’ll be able to handle more data without taking a hit to performance.

Together, these elements make it possible to exchange and process massive amounts of data at ultra-fast speeds. This has profound impacts for retailers in several ways.

What are the use cases for 5G in retail?

It seems there are almost as many 5G use cases as there are retailers. For example, retailers may expand their merchandise with smart appliances, or use it to streamline in-store checkout. These are great options for customer-facing experiences, but 5G can also be used to improve backend operations. It’s important to think inwardly about your business operations and what you want to achieve, as well as how you can improve the customer experience. Here are three use cases to get you started.

1. 5G delivers richer retail experiences

5G is about more than speed. It’s about the rich, real-time experiences it enables. As just mentioned, some retailers are immersing customers in experiences that let them interact with a product before they buy it. They can remodel a room or design a new kitchen and see how their cabinet or furniture choices will look and fit in their spaces. Some retailers even offer a virtual reality experience in which a customer can experience what it’s like to walk in the room they’re designing and interact with objects in it. 

Rich experiences for customers also provide retailers with more robust sets of data. 5G lets you use your data and adjust experiences in the moment or on demand. You can also analyze it offline to better understand customer preferences, anticipate needs, and follow up.

For employees, 5G delivers immersive training experiences. Imagine that you sell high-end appliances in showrooms that host demonstrations and other events. Through augmented reality, virtual reality, and other immersive training, your sales teams can get an up-close, personal look at the newest features and how they work virtually without ever touching the real, physical object. It’s certainly a more engaging way to learn than simply reading a brochure or watching a video. This prepares them to better serve your customers and answer their questions. It can even save you travel expense if that training isn’t normally offered in-house. 

2. 5G drives retailers to adopt Internet of Things (IoT) and multi-access edge computing

What does 5G mean for how your business functions? 5G’s combination of speed, low latency, and reliability is driving greater adoption of internet of things (IoT) technologies in which devices send and receive data. Assets can talk to and control each other. For example, a restaurant might have a connected refrigerator that tells you the doors are open, the temperature is dropping, and your food will perish in 45 minutes. Or you might have a machine that monitors its own components. It can enable predictive maintenance, so you can get it fixed before you experience a problem. 5G provides the bandwidth to carry the real-time data and access for this communication.

5G also enables multi-access edge computing (MEC). With MEC, you can create a network at a specific location. Rather than computing in a data center or the cloud, processing happens closer to where it’s needed, such as a job site, building, or campus. This improves latency and security. This is useful when you want to provide a quality Wi-Fi® experience for your customers, or connect with them to deliver immersive experiences while they’re in your restaurant or store.

3. 5G is impacting retail logistics and supply chain today

Customer-facing experiences may be the most important and attractive applications of 5G, but these will take some time to hit their stride. Why? They require customers to carry a 5G-enabled device. Then the retailer to really begin to create experiences using 5G capability. 5G saturation isn’t expected until around 2025. In the meantime, distribution and supply chain applications are becoming the norm.

Think about the possibilities for managing logistics when 5G is combined with IoT. The retail distribution center (DC) is a key technology platform. Merchandise comes in on trucks, by rail, and by boat. It gets forklifted and organized inside a warehouse, then distributed. In a 4G world, the signal is highly inconsistent because DCs usually aren’t in the middle of a metropolitan area. 5G’s consistency of signal is valuable because it gives you constant, real-time location data on the merchandise. This is crucial if it's temperature-sensitive or there's any other characteristic that needs monitoring.

Using 5G and IoT, you can tag merchandise and track its temperature, location, viability, and more throughout its journey. You can keep your supply chain in constant view. This has become critical because of supply-chain challenges in the last few years.

Every time a customer wants an item that’s out of stock, you lose the revenue from the potential sale, and you might lose the customer. By enabling IoT, 5G helps you track products and get a real-time view of your stock. The result is faster response and restocking times and happier customers.

Retailers will also capture data from cameras and other sensors strategically placed in a warehouse or brick-and-mortar store to reduce losses from theft. And some retailers are already using smart carts that sense the products in them and let customers check out and pay effortlessly, without the need to scan items in a checkout line.

Next steps for 5G in retail

With 5G, retail companies will power new, innovative technologies with more speed and reliability, gather more data, and ultimately build long-lasting relationships with customers. These examples are just a few of many innovative ways retailers will use 5G to boost their businesses and find new ways to compete.

To understand the impact of 5G will have on your business, you must understand both the business and the technology. The right provider is the key to your success. 

AT&T 5G offers a variety of speeds that make sense for business. In fact, AT&T is the nation’s most reliable 5G network,1 reaching more than 277 million Americans in over 18,000 cities and towns. And as a retailer ourselves with 5,000+ branded retail locations (including AT&T company stores and authorized retailers), we understand what’s important to you.

Read more industry trends and customer stories, then find your AT&T solution. 

1 Based on nationwide GWS drive test data. GWS conducts paid drive tests for AT&T and uses the data in its analysis. AT&T 5G requires compatible plan and device. 5G not available everywhere. Go to att.com/5Gforyou for details.