5G in retail:
How 5G MEC
could benefit
retailers and

Author: Keith Shaw

5G networks can provide customers and retailers with faster data access and will have a profound impact on how people shop for products inside a store. For 5G in retail to succeed with services such as immersive experiences, faster app response and cashierless checkout, a better edge infrastructure may be a necessity.

Retailers that combine 5G and multi-access edge computing (MEC) technologies can take advantage of low latency and faster network speeds to enable large volumes of data to be processed for latency sensitive or bandwidth intensive applications. This 5G MEC combination can deliver application data processing closer to customers and store managers to provide better experiences and near-real-time inventory and analytics offerings.

Today's retail challenges

Disruptions in the retail space have been monumental over the past few years, whether it was the pandemic driving customers to online shopping options or global supply chain shortages that left many store shelves empty. Now more than ever, retailers need to focus on providing customers with a fast, easy and optimized shopping experience.

This means reducing wait times at a cash register or expanding and enhancing the floor and shelf space to provide more interactive or immersive experiences. Retailers need to respond to changing consumer views about home delivery and curbside pickup. Store managers and associates need better insights into their customers' preferences, behaviors and expectations. Lastly, they need to ensure product inventory is readily available to minimize out-of-stocks.

Examples of 5G MEC retail technology

New retail solutions, powered by 5G and MEC technology, can help retailers address many of their current challenges.

Cashierless checkout

Cashierless checkout goes beyond self-checkout stations, which can have lines as long as a regular staffed register station. This technology includes computer vision paired with machine learning to identify when a customer selects an item and places it in a shopping cart. When they are done shopping, they can simply exit the store and a digital receipt can then be generated and sent to them.

Augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) applications can give customers data to help them with their purchase decisions. Through an AR-enabled smartphone app, a customer could point their phone's camera at the product and receive detailed product information, reviews and price comparisons with similar products. In a grocery environment, an app could scan a customer's grocery list, check store inventory levels and then give the customer a virtual map with the items' locations and the fastest route to obtain them. If a product isn't available, the app could provide alternatives to consider.

AR can also be used to create better retail displays, such as letting customers see how they look wearing a certain shirt, jacket or dress. Technologies such as smart mirrors also let customers view different color and style options and provide additional product choices to complement the outfit. This immersive experience shows how 5G in retail can deliver an experience beyond what customers could receive online, fostering brand loyalty and making shopping fun.

How 5G MEC supports new experiences

To enable these new experiences, retailers need to create a MEC retail environment that can support the low latency and high data volume these systems and applications require. 5G technologies and MEC systems that move computing resources closer to the store can provide these solutions.

Enhanced customer experience

To demonstrate the impact of 5G in retail, consider the example of a customer using an app to expedite their shopping. After the customer pulls up their list with the app, the app transmits the list through 5G to a nearby MEC server, which rapidly computes the items' locations in the store. It also compiles a list of alternative products if any items are unavailable.

The app then quickly calculates the best route to gather the items and provides an AR virtual map for the customer to follow. At each stop, the customer can receive additional product information, reviews, recipe ideas that may require additional purchases or digital coupons. The customer can access this data using 5G's low latency and higher speeds.

In an AR-enabled smart mirror example, 5G in retail supports the application's massive data requirements, allowing customers to see a 360-degree view of themselves in each outfit, even if they adjust their pose. The smart mirrors could also access large data files from edge servers within the MEC to provide more information on each product available in near real time.

More efficient operations

With 5G MEC and RFID tagging or internet of things (IoT) sensors, stores can track inventory in real time. Inventory information can be integrated with an artificial intelligence (AI) driven ordering system that can replenish goods automatically as inventory levels reach predefined thresholds to help prevent out of stocks. Inventory visibility can also be accessed on consumer apps, informing shoppers which stores have products in stock. The data also can help managers notice shopping trends to improve merchandising displays or optimize store layouts.

All of this is possible due to the technological innovations of 5G providing low latency and high speeds for large sets of data, and MEC technologies moving computing power to the edge of the network, instead of a cloud computing data center that could be thousands of miles away. MEC servers located within a 5G network give customers a 5G MEC environment that can quickly process large volumes of data to support the new generation of applications within these immersive experiences.

5G in retail can help create new opportunities

Deploying a 5G MEC system has the potential to help retailers solve problems of long wait times and inaccurate inventory levels. It can also give managers layout optimization options and customer buying preference data. Plus, retailers can earn repeat business by providing customers with immersive and fun experiences.

Learn more about how 5G in retail and MEC deployments can create a better connected retail experience.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.