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Is 5G the Next Frontier of the Modern Shopping Experience?

Whenever new technology captures considerable hype, it also sparks speculation as to whether it can possibly live up to expectations. The long-awaited fifth generation of cellular technology—5G—is no exception. With promises to enhance the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks, retailers hoping to recoup losses from the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to take a hard look at whether they could benefit from a large-scale deployment.

Christian Guirnalda, Verizon’s director of 5G labs and innovation centers, believes the carrier’s wireless technology developments could be extremely relevant for retail’s future, as they can further blend the back-of-house operations in the supply chain with the customer-facing aspects of commerce.

The technology is designed to give companywide employees real-time, immediate visibility into enterprise-wide level data via mobile device to perform tasks more efficiently, all while enhancing the power of mobile-friendly features such as augmented reality and intelligent video.

“It might be an employee that’s trying to pick up and pack for in-store distribution and they can use augmented reality to help them do that in a faster manner, but it also might be the consumer who’s got their preferences and looking at an entire shelf using computer vision to understand things that might be more relevant or personalized for them,” Guirnalda said last week during a Verizon webinar on 5G’s impact in retail.

What makes 5G technology so valuable, he added, is its ability to ensure applications have low latency—meaning they can process a very high volume of data with minimal delay. These 5G-powered networks are designed to support operations that require near real-time access to rapidly changing data sets.

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“To me, it’s super obvious the experiences that 5G enables on the consumer device in the store,” said Jason Goldberg, chief commerce strategy officer at digital agency Publicis. “Pre-COVID, we were starting to see new retail stores that required you to use your phone to even get in the store. The Amazon Go store, the Nike Innovation store, in which a lot of the experiences in the store are intended to happen on your phone. Walmart has a concept store called Sam’s Club Now that requires you to use your phone to shop and checkout. In dramatically improving the bandwidth and the latency to all those consumer devices in the store, the benefits there seem like a no-brainer.”

5G offers other benefits, too, including smarter real-time personalized, recommended content distributed to shoppers, autonomous checkout and even last-mile autonomous delivery in the long run. Verizon is currently testing 5G Ultra Wideband network technology at the University of Michigan’s Mcity Test Facility, installing 5G-connected cameras at every intersection inside the facility to help identify traffic and pedestrian patterns to prevent collisions.

“The autonomous vehicle itself is sending a massive amount of data back into the sort of systems that go and control them,” Guirnalda said. “I think there will be a ways to go and there’s various levels of adoption across locations and geographies, but it’s definitely something that we’re excited about knowing that it’s already out there.”

During the webinar, the panelists also shared where they envisioned retail’s future taking shape. Michele M. Dupré, group vice president at Verizon Business Group, saw the acceleration of local store fulfillment as the biggest trend shift during the pandemic, pointing out the growing gap between those that have been able to execute in that environment and those that haven’t.

“One of the biggest opportunities that we’ve seen, and we’ve heard this consistently across customers regardless of vertical, is that things that would typically take an organization months to do, they were able to compress within weeks and then sometimes days,” Dupré said. “So I think we’ve really set the bar that the agility of the teams, the innovation and the leadership, when you put your mind to doing something, you really focus on what matters and that’s serving your customers and also being able to serve them in a safe and secure environment.”

Best Buy, for one, deployed curbside pickup at 800 stores in 48 hours once shelter-in-place rules went into effect in the U.S., Goldberg noted.

“The normal pace of retail to deploy something like curbside pickup across an entire chain—if you did it in three months, you’d be thrilled,” he said. “Now the fact that 48 hours is the new normal, it seems like it’s going to be quite a different environment for retailers to be operating.”

Of course, the great unknown going forward, and the question of whether the pandemic will continue to spread further throughout the U.S. during the summer or again in the fall, presents concerns on how to plan for the future.

“What we’ve learned and what retailers have learned over the past few months is that we don’t know how insightful the data they gather around consumer behavior is going to be,” Dupré said. “When is that data going to be insightful enough that they could start looking for patterns to begin forecasting and doing some level of demand generation against it? They have to get into this environment where they understand that everything from thermal scanning to facial coverings has become the new norm, but they also must be able to start and stop when they see uncertainty in the market.”

As nonessential retailers continue to reopen stores and reintroduce themselves to a world that didn’t shop inside their four walls for three months, merchants are in recovery mode, with three opportunities ahead, according to Guirnalda.

Curbside pickup is the first, he reiterated, emphasizing two more points captured by digital engagement across all channels.

“Are there opportunities to surprise and delight through these new digital engagements that through the constraint of the pandemic, you were forced to start to think through?” Guirnalda said. “Those who are adopting new engagement models or moments within the experience probably are creating new moments to make their brand more valuable to that consumer. Additionally, there are illustrations of what the new digitally enabled brick-and-mortar store could look like. It’s more personalized, it’s more engaged and some of those components of digital and mobile are starting to be not only applied to the store footprint itself but blended within the e-commerce experience at the same time.”