5G in retail: How next-gen networks could alleviate future holiday shortages

5G retail technology can help retailers streamline operations and potentially handle disruptions during future holiday seasons.

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It’s hard enough getting the year’s hottest toys without supply chain issues. But in 2021, retail industry woes—from shipping delays and port congestion to product shortages—are in the news like never before. Luckily, 5G may bring relief for future shoppers and retailers alike. As one of the most promising new technologies in retail, 5G offers capabilities like lower latency and higher throughput that have the potential to improve supply chain visibility, order tracking and in-store operations.

Seeing a path to better supply chains

As they headed into the 2021 holiday season, 98% of retail executives reported experiencing supply chain issues.1 Yet demand is at or near record highs, putting retailers in a squeeze to source products and get them on the shelves.

Today’s supply chains are complex global collections of manufacturers, logistics companies, wholesalers, retailers and dozens of partners. They have been buffeted by environmental and regulatory issues and, most significantly, fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. This makes it challenging to react quickly and agilely to changing conditions. The solution will require better visibility into what’s happening at each step.

5G promises to provide a foundation that can support better supply chain visibility and bring about near real-time supply chains. 5G will eventually be capable of supporting large IoT implementations—potentially up to 1 million devices per kilometer—allowing for sensors and tracking devices that can provide near real-time data on products as they move through the supply chain.2 By using artificial intelligence to handle the data, retailers and suppliers will be able to turn potentially millions of data points into actionable insights on the state of shipments.

But what happens when that product hits a bottleneck at a port, warehouse or other overburdened facility? Container ships were waiting an average of two weeks to be unloaded in the beleaguered port of Los Angeles this year.3

Video intelligence running on a 5G network could help give operators a constant view of a warehouse or distribution center to enhance security and improve occupational safety.

Autonomous machines could also help. With a 5G network and mobile edge computing (MEC), logistics companies could power autonomous machines and other improvements to speed shipping. Associated British Ports signed a deal in 2021 with Verizon to deploy private 5G at the Port of Southampton, the U.K.’s #1 port, which is responsible for £40 billion in exports from the U.K. every year. This network is expected to provide a secure, low-latency connection that can form the foundation for future IoT implementations or machine learning applications.

Keeping an eye on every order

Getting a product to the store is only the start of retail’s challenges. Customers now expect detailed order tracking. Currently, that’s done by tracking vehicles and scanning in packages at various checkpoints. But as mentioned earlier, manufacturers can now use product tags to track individual items. This is the kind of very large IoT solution that should benefit from robust 5G networks.

Stocking the shelves with 5G

Finally, 5G will have an impact inside the stores themselves. Retailers need to offer customers the best possible experiences, and that often means blending in-store and online shopping. Robust networks will help retailers tie these two experiences together.

Smart shelves for retailers give managers the ability to view shelf inventory or display product information on an LED screen on the store shelf. By remotely updating product information, staff members don’t have to visit each shelf and reprint labels. It also allows for much more rapid price matching and inventory updating and frees up staff to focus on customer service, not back-end logistics.

5G-powered cameras using computer vision, edge compute, and the same kind of RFID tags or chips that allow manufacturers to track items can be used to help retailers streamline in-store inventory management. Retailers can immediately learn when items are in the wrong place or out of stock and identify areas with high traffic. This can help optimize employee staffing and productivity and help reduce shrinkage due to loss or shoplifting.

Some retailers already offer branded apps that help customers while they’re in the store. A 5G retail experience could include wayfinding, augmented reality product information and touchless checkout. Taken a step further, fully autonomous stores offer the potential to provide new retail opportunities while streamlining operations. Verizon and AiFi recently piloted an autonomous store powered by 5G at the Indianapolis 500® and several music festivals.

While customer-facing apps can run on 4G networks, for large and complex stores, the throughput and low latency that 5G can provide will make for more effective applications and will better support many users at a time.

While 5G retail technologies won’t impact this year’s holiday retail scene, they should make a difference in the future. By supporting better visibility and agility, 5G could help retailers avoid this season’s retail challenges, and that means shoppers will find it even easier to bring home that special gift.

Learn more about 5G possibilities for business at verizon.com/business/solutions/5g/


1 https://www.retaildive.com/news/study-98-of-retail-execs-report-supply-chain-issues-ahead-of-holidays/609141/

2 https://www.samsung.com/global/business/networks/insights/blog/5g-is-now-part-1-2018-the-year-of-5g/

3https://nrf.com/media-center/press-releases/retail-imports-near-record-pace-despite-port-congestion-holiday-season

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