Beyond Wi-Fi: How cellular meets in-store connectivity demands of customers and digitally transformed retailers

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Two years after the pandemic, brick-and-mortar shopping is back in business. Last year, offline retailer stores experienced a very healthy 6% growth, and Forrester now predicts that offline retail sales in the U.S. will reach $4.2 trillion by 2028.

With physical retail back, stores are becoming very different from what they once were. As PwC revealed in a recent report, consumers increasingly demand “phygital” experiences that seamlessly combine on- and offline services (i.e. “physical + “digital”).

According to PwC’s research, key drivers include access to knowledgeable and helpful sales associates, the ability to use self-service checkout kiosks, and in-store use of a retailer’s website or mobile app to browse for particular products. Shopping in stores, it seems, is increasingly a digitally augmented experience.

The store of the future

Looking ahead, advanced cellular connectivity solutions have the potential to further redefine the in-store retail experience by enabling more immersive, efficient, and personalized shopping experiences. Imagine, for instance, interactive displays and smart mirrors that offer customers virtual try-on experiences, helping them visualize products without physical interaction. Or smart applications that provide personalized shopping recommendations based on matching a customer’s past purchase history with in-store inventory. Similarly, store-branded mobile applications could guide customers through large stores to help them find items quickly.

And it’s not just consumers that are set to benefit from this blurring of the divide between e-commerce and in-store. Retailers are increasingly looking to digital tools to drive operational efficiencies – whether that’s communications tech to keep employees connected, or IoT innovations to help automate inventory management and stock control. Connected devices can deliver significant efficiency savings. According to McKinsey, for instance, grocery retailers could save 15-20% through the use of in-store technology.

The connectivity imperative

This new breed of store, therefore, promises much – for consumers and retailers alike. However, for these benefits to be realized in full, one thing above all else is required: effective in-store cellular coverage. Without comprehensive coverage throughout stores, the digital experience is flawed. Customer service employees would struggle to communicate with colleagues spread throughout the store, and customers would be unable to bring up their social media to check a new look with friends. Meanwhile, the grander “phygital” experiences of tomorrow would remain a pipedream. Cellular coverage is what brings digital in-store experiences to life. Without it, digital applications are rendered next to useless.

Of course, this problem isn’t new. What is new is that much more now rides on solving it. Historically, Wi-Fi has been the go-to connectivity solution for retailers. However, although Wi-Fi is great for a lot of things, it does not meet all connectivity requirements for retailers and can often lead to friction in the customer experience.

For many consumers, security is an issue. Most people today are aware of the threats posed by unsecured wireless connections and feel safer using cellular (according to one survey, just 23% of consumers think that public Wi-Fi is safe). For others, the user experience with Wi-Fi leaves something to be desired. People want a friction-free digital experience, instead, they have to spend extra time logging in to the retailer’s Wi-Fi network.

Cellular is more secure and easier to use, but coverage can be a real issue inside of stores. Poor coverage leads to a slow and unreliable connection, which in turn impacts the performance of digital tools and services. Without sufficient cellular coverage, the employee and customer experience is significantly impacted. In the worst cases, they make these tools unusable.

Boosting cellular coverage in stores

Fortunately, advances in cellular signal-boosting technology now mean that retailers can bridge connectivity gaps and better realize their in-store digital ambitions. Cellular signal boosters and Active DAS Hybrids – which are great for big box stores – harness outdoor cellular networks and extend robust, reliable, and secure connectivity into the store environment. In effect, these solutions amplify cellular signals, thereby ensuring seamless data transmission and enhancing the user experience (whether the user is an employee, a customer, or an IoT application). The solutions therefore represent a vital piece of the puzzle in overcoming the connectivity challenges faced by retailers, ultimately contributing to the successful digital transformation of the industry.

From payment systems and kiosks to inventory management systems and QR code access, digital connectivity lies at the heart of the modern store. And as use cases and applications proliferate as the digital revolution continues to unfold, robust, reliable, and secure connectivity will be imperative for all retailers. By putting in place cellular signal boosters that ensure end-to-end coverage, retailers can realize the full benefit of digital customer experiences, employee connectivity, and process automation today, while creating a strong foundation for the retail organization of the future.

Stephen Kowal
Stephen M. Kowal is the Chief Commercial Officer at Nextivity, the industry leader in intelligent cellular coverage solutions. Stephen is a technology industry veteran who has held strategic roles in sales, channel, and global accounts for nearly 25 years. As CCO, Stephen is responsible for the company’s customer and partner-facing teams, specifically those focused on sales, business development, marketing, product management and customer service.

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