Survival of the quickest: 5G will speed up natural selection of retailers

Organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive, to paraphrase Charles Darwin. Those which change over time grow stronger — be that animals, plants or whatever else.

But this Darwinism applies beyond the limitations of living organisms, as more than a handful of retailers are about to discover. 

The switch of the UK’s first 5G network has now been flicked on in a number of major cities, marking the dawn of superfast, low-latency, next-generation mobile connectivity across the country.

I can feel your excitement from here.

Consumer reaction to the rollout has represented something between apathy and bewilderment. It’s a fair response. Up to this point, 5G has been explained largely in conceptual terms; a future-gazing interpretation of products and services yet to come. It’s hard to get excited about something so intangible.

But it’s here, and within a year, much of the developed world will have the option to upgrade. And like 4G, within five years, people won’t know how they lived without it. This is no longer a conceptual, futuristic pipe-dream. It exists, is approaching mass fast, and will define the next decade of commerce.

Which brings us back to Darwin. Adapting to this new world brings both a challenge and an opportunity. As any technology becomes normalised, so consumer expectation rises to that level. Retailers that have a poor digital presence today will be the first to lose out when 5G is the norm.

Price, convenience and customer experience have determined for decades the success of a bricks and mortar retailer. But with massively increased bandwidth, these factors take on new meaning. It is not farfetched to say that what 5G enables represents a seamless merging of the digital and physical worlds. Your shop becomes an extension of your digital presence and vice versa.

Here’s a scenario. A customer walks into a shop looking for a pair of shoes. It says the shoes are in stock on the website. When they arrive, the shoes are nowhere to be seen. That’s lost revenue, and an irritated customer. The physical and digital need to talk to one another.

With 5G, retailers could gain a real-time view of their entire stock. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on connected smart shelving, for example, could automatically update a website when an item is low, so the customer isn’t misled into a journey. Likewise, the shelving could automatically notify an out-of-town warehouse robot to allocate and pack more of a product. With increased bandwidth, a drone could then pick the item up and deliver it to the store in no time. Without doing a thing, the store will remain fully stocked, without the need for storage in an expensive retail location. 

But what to do with all that extra space, now your warehouse is out of town? Consumers have grown used to the hyper-personalisation and reduced steps to purchase in their digital lives, and so too will they expect it in-store.

Let’s check back in with a hypothetical shoe customer. After checking availability online, they walk through the front of the store. Facial recognition detects so, and a personalised message greets them. Their phone notifies them – via the smart shelf – that their shoes are on the second floor. The customer then follows a map on their phone that directs them, past items they have expressed an interest in online, towards their new footwear.

Shoes on feet, the customer remembers a shirt they’ve just walked past. It was blue. They look in a smart mirror, and select blue shirts. The smart mirror detects the map has just walked the customer past a blue shirt. The augmented reality tech in the mirror displays a digital reflection of the customer wearing that shirt. It looks terrible. There’s another shirt available but not in stock. The customer puts on a pair of haptic gloves, which simulate realistic touch, so they can feel the quality of the garment. Still no good, so they leave. Payment for the shoes is charged automatically as they exit via facial recognition.

This sort of tech may sound like the stuff of sci-fi, but is less than five years away, all enabled by the bandwidth and latency 5G will provide. The available tech is going to revolutionise the in-store experience consumers have: more personalised and efficient, it represents a true merging of the on and offline experience.

Amid the perfect storm of political uncertainty and challenging high street conditions, investing in tech may seem a gamble. But this 5G revolution represents an evolution. It’s survival of the quickest, and only the strong will thrive.