5G tech is the key to omnichannel retail

Stuart Corner

Following the surge in online orders created by the pandemic, bricks-and-mortar retailers are working to create true omnichannel shopping experiences for consumers that span their online and in-store experiences.

Communications technology plays a key role here, with 5G tech likely to have a big impact.

These developments were explored in the Age of Trust podcast: Trusted Retailing: The role of next-gen technology in delivering strong CX, with InnovationAus publisher Corrie McLeod in conversation with Kmart and Target chief information officer Brad Blyth, and Verizon global solutions executive Mathew Wells.

Mr Wells said there was a clear distinction between those retailers that simply offered multiple channels, and those offering a true omnichannel experience.

Kmart and Target CIO Brad Blyth, Corrie McLeod and Verizon’s Mathew Wells

Data played a key role in enabling an organisation to offer a truly omnichannel experience: “It’s the secret sauce that enables them to do this,” he said.

Mr Blyth said Kmart and Target were working towards an omnichannel experience for customers.

“We’ve got our mobile app out and we’re promoting our website. Now, we’re moving beyond that to what we’re calling ‘contextual experiences’: having the experience consistent is where we need to be, so that customers can access the right level of information seamlessly.

“We want to use data to step up to that next level. In other words, one that’s more adaptive to the environment they are in.”

He said that, when the onset of the pandemic in 2020 saw a massive surge in online shopping, particularly for everyday goods such as groceries, Kmart and Target were filling these online orders from store shelves, but this created some challenges.

“We have a really big store network. So, for us distributing from stores makes sense because there’s less travel time from where the product is to the customer. But that created a challenge around real-time inventory management,” Mr Blyth said.

“If you’re online, and you order a pair of shoes and we try and fulfill that order from a store, we need to know exactly how many pairs of shoes are on the shelf.”

To obtain real-time in-store inventory data, Kmart and Target have started to add RFID tags to every item and are using robots to travel around stores and read these – and such technology requires very good in-store communications capability.

“Sub-standard network coverage really hampers our digitisation and some of the technology we’re trying to implement. Connectivity to the internet is the base level capability we need, but in a physical retail environment getting the bandwidth to provide some of the experiences we want to offer can be difficult,” he said.

He sees 5G as offering a solution. “We think that, as 5G rolls out, it’s going to open up more opportunities to provide better experiences than we can offer today. In a world where 5G has really good coverage we can use edge computing more powerfully. We can really beef up some of the things that we’re trying to do to digitise our stores.

“We see this as a massive opportunity. We see our store network as an advantage that complements our online experience, and we’re really trying to marry those two together.”

Verizon’s Mr Wells said the low latency of 5G combined with edge computing opens many possibilities for retail store operators.

“When people are moving around a store you need real-time data to be able to add value to those clients, and to get that data you need high bandwidth and low latency.

“You can make real-time decisions in sub millisecond timeframes with edge computing by pushing virtual machines to the edge of the 5G network. I’ve seen use cases in retail where they’ve been able to create heat maps: an image of the store that shows where people have been looking,” Mr Wells said.

“So, if the retailer has a particular product they are showcasing at the front of the store, they can test the effectiveness of that by looking at the heat map.”

Key priorities for retailers to compete more effectively in this new era post-COVID will be scaling up digital, improving the ecommerce customer experience and operating efficiency, futureproofing end-to-end operating models and progressing supply chain transformation – all of which require failsafe connectivity.

Those that do this will be ahead of the rest.

The Age of Trust podcast series was produced as a partnership between Verizon Business Group and InnovationAus.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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