5G and edge computing help retailers work smarter behind the scenes 

This article is part of the Technology Insight series, made possible with funding from Intel.

From grab-and-go checkout to convenient self-service kiosks and more personalized recommendations, retailers have plenty of cutting-edge technology at their disposal to engage customers. There’s also a lot of work going on behind the scenes to streamline shopping: in-building 5G, fine-tuning supply chains with connected robots, and training employees using virtual reality.

Regardless of where the innovation happens, you can bet it’s fed by a deluge of data from devices on the network’s edge. According to Gartner, the retail and wholesale trade segment will grow to include 440 million IoT endpoints this year, up from 360 million in 2019 and 290 million in 2018.

It's not enough to simply generate more data with IoT endpoints. We also need to analyze it in real-time.

Above: It’s not enough to simply generate more data with IoT endpoints. We also need to analyze it in real-time.

As those endpoints multiply, so does the amount of information they generate. But this presents a challenge: how do retailers keep up? After all, real-time decisions on what to order, where to deploy inventory, and how to keep customers safe require real-time analysis.

KEY POINTS:

  • Data will help retailers operate more efficiently by keeping shelves stocked, accurately reflecting inventory in real time.
  • Retailers can use real-time analytics to not only provide a more convenient shopping experience, but also promote the health and safety of customers and employees.
  • 5G’s potential for high bandwidth and low latency will make training in AR/VR possible through cloud-based streaming to lower-cost devices than today’s HMDs.
  • In-building cellular solutions will be needed for a consistent 5G experience across connected devices.

Increasingly, the smarts behind your business intelligence is going to come from 5G linking sensors and cameras to an optimized storage infrastructure. That, in turn, feeds edge computing hardware close to the data-hungry services that make shopping more efficient and intimate. Let’s explore a few examples of how 5G is already affecting the back end of retail.

Shore up the supply chain with more accurate inventory

The IHL Group says too many retailers track inventories manually, resulting in an imprecise accounting of what’s on the shelf. Although those businesses believe they’re almost always in stock, customers find what they’re looking for just 75% of the time. This discrepancy costs the global retail industry more than $1.1 trillion dollars every year.

A combination of RFID tags, sensors, and cameras can give retailers the item-level analysis they need to restock shelves and place orders before running out of inventory. Those same systems also make it possible to collect data on the paths customers take through a store, where they stop, and what they pick up.

Badger Technologies’ autonomous robot provides insight into out-of-stock, planogram compliance, and price integrity issues. It also monitors for in-store hazards.

Above: Badger Technologies’ autonomous robot provides insight into out-of-stock, planogram compliance, and price integrity issues. It also monitors for in-store hazards.

Add 5G to that suite of capabilities and you open the door to another level of responsiveness. Last year, AT&T and Badger Technologies announced that they were working together on a retail automation project using 5G-connected robots. The company’s robots identify out-of-stock, mislabeled, and misplaced items using 5G and edge computing to transmit analysis to a centralized dashboard.

“The collection and sharing of store data with local and corporate retail systems can overwhelm in-store Wi-Fi networks, which then can impact store operations and customer shopping experiences,” says Tim Rowland, CEO of Badger Technologies. “As mobile data-collection systems, Badger robots can benefit from 5G connectivity by being able to gather, share, and analyze more data across store- and corporate-wide retail networks.”

These days, robots in the aisle are even working overtime to keep customers safe. In addition to their stock-keeping responsibilities Badger’s robots detect and report hazards so they can be cleaned up faster. Robotic floor scrubbers powered by San Diego-based Brain Corp’s BrainOS, armed with suites of sensors and cellular connectivity, upload analytics data to the cloud as they  operate alongside customers.

Automating tasks like cleaning and inventory management helps promote social distancing. It also allows employees to focus on deep cleaning and sanitizing—jobs that have become much more strenuous as of late.

Getting 5G in-store

How do retailers ensure their leased robots maintain 5G connectivity? Eventually, AT&T believes they’ll use in-building cellular solutions. The robots will transfer data to the same small cells responsible for routing information to cell phones. Multi-access edge computing resources will prioritize the data and process it locally to minimize latency. Meanwhile, low-priority traffic will be directed to the network operator’s core and to the cloud. Depending on the retailer’s privacy and security concerns, some of that data may also remain on premise.

Last year, Verizon and Boingo Wireless announced a partnership to get millimeter wave 5G into airports, stadiums, and office buildings. More recently, Verizon said it spent more than $80 million in Miami, FL ahead of Super Bowl LIV. Some of that investment went into cellular coverage to improve performance in popular hotels and shopping centers. Additionally, the Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports were equipped with 5G connectivity.

AT&T and T-Mobile took a different tack on their paths to nationwide 5G coverage, building out low band networks by reusing 4G spectrum. As a result, both companies now say they reach more than 200 million people. Beyond blanketing 5G over “hundreds of square miles” with a single tower, the 850 MHz (AT&T) and 600 MHz (T-Mobile) bands are also better for getting 5G signals indoors.

In contrast, the millimeter wave frequencies known for delivering high speed and low latency don’t do well through most building materials. To bridge the gap, private cell sites will help retailers ensure a reliable connection on the sales floor. Recently, Verizon completed lab trials with a Corning’s 5G in-building solution—a precursor to commercial availability. “A private 5G network will offer customers the potential to have the cloud within their facility,” says Adam Koeppe, SVP of technology planning and development at Verizon. “It will accelerate enterprise automation and digitization efforts, and with Verizon’s mmWave bandwidth and reliability, it will offer the scalability to manage massive numbers of devices along with advanced capabilities such as edge AI, computer vision, and other emerging technologies.” Verizon says it’ll begin deploying an in-building product by the end of 2020.

All of the training, none of the risk

The push to get 5G up and running in-store doesn’t only affect the technologies that customers interact with. It can also help educate employees and prevent safety incidents. Companies in the U.S. spent 83 billion dollars on corporate training in 2019 teaching the skills employees needed to fulfill their roles. It’s unfortunate, then, that the retention rates of passive teaching methods like sitting in on a lecture or reading a manual are far lower than participatory ones. Augmented and virtual reality are potential solutions, allowing employees to go “hands-on” in a safe environment, engaging them with an immersive experience, and accelerating the learning process.

Back in 2017, Walmart saw an opportunity to train employees with lifelike environments in VR and deployed Oculus Go headsets to 30 of its Academies, giving managers a taste of Black Friday madness without the unforgiving stakes. The program was so successful that Walmart ended up sending headsets to all of its stores. With thousands of headsets in the field, more than 1 million employees had access to a library of activity-based training modules developed by STRIVR.

The lightweight headsets Walmart is using offer limited processing power. More rigorous training routines might require higher-quality graphics, better tracking, or lower motion-to-photon latency–the time between performing an action and the display reflecting it–before retailers roll them out. These demanding workloads stand to benefit from split rendering, which involves dividing the task between local resources and the edge cloud. According to Ericsson, the high bandwidth, low latency, and reliability you’d need for this use case could be delivered with a private 5G network or through a network slice on a public network.

Gains beyond the store floor

It’s easy to get excited about the ways 5G will change the shopping experience. More relevant offers, faster checkout, engagement across channels—they all promise to boost efficiency and improve personalization. However, there are plenty of cool 5G applications behind the scenes, too.

Accurate inventories help retailers manage their stock and prevent lost sales, while VR/AR training gives employees an opportunity to go hands-on without risking a costly mistake or injury.

The former involves ingesting data from IoT devices for quick analysis on local servers. The latter is going to require streaming high-bitrate data from the cloud at low latencies to lightweight clients. In both cases, 5G and edge computing facilitate new experiences that change the face of retail.


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