As 5G is finally available in limited areas across the UK, futurists expect the technology to be one of the biggest retail disruptors over the next five years. Although there is potential for mobile technology to impact retail, it will have patchy coverage in its early stages and with only a handful of compatible (and very expensive) phones, usage of 5G will be restricted in the short term.

Will 5G live up to its potential?

The potential for 5G to revolutionise the way people shop is unlikely, there is limited evidence to suggest that there is an appetite to shop on the go, with GlobalData’s E-retail survey (of 10,000 UK online shoppers) demonstrating that 65% prefer to browse products on smartphones and then make purchases on a laptop/desktop. Furthermore, the survey also shows that between 2013 and 2019 there has been very little increase in the percentage of online purchases that were made in a public place or whilst travelling, despite this period covering the transition to faster 4G networks. Evidence from the survey suggests that consumers have reservations about shopping when outside of homes or work, for reasons such as security, storage issues and poor imagery. 5G will bring new enhancements which will make shopping on mobile sites considerably faster, which may address these reservations and in due course encourage more consumers to shop on the go.

5G is not just about faster download speeds, it’s also about lower latencies which could allow retailers to use real-time technology to collect data on shoppers’ habits. Data is used to optimise pricing strategy, predicting future demand and even visual merchandising. For data collection to be effective, fast and reliable, technology is essential, particularly when the data is being used for time-sensitive offerings, such as proximity marketing or instant personalisation experiences. Lower latency of 5G can also help retailers implement Internet of Things-based projects effectively, for example, smart-shelves that use sensors can keep a real-time track of stock, and can communicate to logistics when a product is low, thereby simplifying the overall stock control process.

Lower latency and increased bandwidth will be a huge boost to technologies associated with customer engagement such a VR/AR and gamification. With reliance on 4G, technologies such as VR/AR are often limited in practical use, and the user experience is often slow and lagging. This defeats the purpose of AR/VR where the user experience is all about immersion and virtual experiences, with 5G, retailers will be able to unlock the full potential of these new technologies, transforming them from mere gimmicks to useful tools, enhancing the overall customer journey.