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Sci-Fi Retail Gets Real With 5G Technology in 2021

By Michele Dupré, Vice President Sales, Verizon Business Group

In the first year of this “business as unusual,” businesses had to simply react to the situation and handle their immediate needs to maintain the health and safety of their employees and customers while balancing revenue goals. But as we enter year two, leaders across all industries are taking the opportunity to determine what the future will look like across their industry both from a customer experience and a supply chain perspective.

Retail is no exception, as brick-and-mortars were forced to focus on other channels to drive revenue during 2020. While many of the immediate concerns involve deciding how the in-store environment needs to shift to ensure consumer comfort, retailers are uniquely positioned to take advantage of some of the cutting-edge technologies to innovate in the long-term.

One of the conduits of innovation is 5G technology: the applications that can be built on top of this network can enhance functionalities such as Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality that could quickly go from hypothetical to industry standard in the next few years. This excitement around 5G retailers was confirmed in the Verizon 5G Business Report, which we released in January and surveyed industry leaders across numerous verticals: Sports/Entertainment/Media, Government/Public Sector, Healthcare, Manufacturing, and of course Retail.

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An industry imperative

Retailers see the shift to and the use of advanced technology as paramount to staying relevant with shoppers, and 5G is expected to be a large part of it. In fact, as retailers plan for the future,  77% of retail respondents indicated that businesses that do not adopt 5G technology will fall behind their peers. Because of this, we are already seeing infrastructure investments to expedite the path to 5G. Consider the fact that 62% of retail leaders surveyed are already subscribed or planning within the next six months to subscribe to a 5G-enabled fixed-line business internet service, and that 50% are using 5G to power or build new applications supported by multi-access edge computing (MEC) technologies. While these may be new technologies, because of the perceived revenue implications across all industries, lack of business cases ranked second to last in terms of barriers to 5G adoption.

Interestingly, while 5G adoption ranked high across retail and all other industries, within specific business functions there were some deltas. IT leadership over-indexed in terms of viewing 5G planning and adoption as a priority for their firm. However, for retail, because of the revenue implications, the Sales, Marketing and Business Development function tied for highest among all industries – alongside Sports/Entertainment/Media – with 44% of these leaders seeing 5G as a priority. The embrace and approach to 5G innovation from revenue leaders will differentiate those retailers who rush to develop “cool” applications versus those who are leveraging technology to build long-term brand loyalty and differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

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From imperative to reinvention

So while the drive to 5G is happening right now, what is exciting are the possibilities that retailers are already thinking about today and the types of applications that are on the horizon. What were once sci-fi pipe dreams are now squarely on the road maps for retailers with artificial intelligence, machine learning, and sensor-driven applications reinventing what it means to shop. Not surprisingly, retail leaders saw transforming the customer experience as 5G’s overall top impact.

One of the more interesting questions posed in our survey was which 5G applications retailers would find valuable and which they saw as being implemented within the next two years. While IoT-related applications, digital signage, and real-time inventory topped the scales in terms of shorter-term implementation, some of those items with a greater difference between perceived value and shorter term implementation provided a glimpse into the future. These include:

  • Instant access to product information for consumers through an Augmented Reality application on their smartphone or compatible device: (82% valuable, 76% likely to be implemented within two years)
  • Ability for consumers to shop from anywhere using Augmented and Virtual Reality that offer detailed product visualization:(80% valuable, 73% likely to be implemented within two years)
  • Use of automation and advanced technologies to enable unmanned retail stores (74% valuable, 67% likely to be implemented within two years)

In a future with social distancing and capacity concerns, giving consumers personalized customer assistance without in-person interactions is an area where 5G innovation could help satisfy changing consumer expectations. Augmented reality for shoppers, for instance, is a likely use case where customers should have the ability to self-serve with wayfinding and product information with ease. With stores beginning to open to greater capacities, the deltas between value and likelihood of implementation are likely to shrink.

As these figures suggest, retail leaders believe that augmented and virtual reality can have a profound impact on customer service with inventory and promotional displays in the shorter term, and workforce management in the long term.

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