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Two Food Chains Trial RFID-based Electronic Shelf Labels

The Altierre system enables the retailers to automatically make price changes and product recall alerts on shelf labels throughout their stores.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 30, 2009Two U.S. grocery-store chains are trialing an electronic shelf label (ESL) system in several of their stores on the East and West coasts. The ESL system, provided by Altierre, comprises RFID-based LCD displays that attach to store shelves to identify products and their prices, enabling immediate shelf-side updates of product data. The system can be managed from a remote location and help the stores avoid using millions of paper labels annually. According to Sunit Saxena, Altierre's chairman and CEO, the system has been six years in the making, and has been piloted for the past nine months.

Altierre also opened a retail technology center at its headquarters building in San Jose, Calif. The center, consisting of a supermarket and technology lab, enables potential RFID technology users to test the system in a simulated environment.


Altierre's electronic shelf label contains a 2.4 GHz RFID tag and an LCD display.

Altierre began developing a labeling solution for retailers in 2003, Saxena says. The company sought to create a solution that would allow retailers to instantaneously update, from a centralized location, the information they display to customers regarding the food, electronics, clothing or other products they sell. A typical chain retailer makes 10,000 to 12,000 price changes each week, Saxena notes, and creating shelf labels to reflect those many changes requires printing paper labels and using staff labor to attach them to the shelves. Mistakes often result during that process, and the number of price changes and shelf-labeling errors are both on the rise.

"Stores just can't keep up with fast price changes," Saxena states, describing the challenges retailers face when using paper labels. Although point-of-sale data is updated electronically so that the price charged to customers can be changed automatically at the cash register, he says, the shelf has always been removed from that electronic data stream.

Altierre considered a Wi-Fi-based solution, Saxena says, but found that each Wi-Fi node could not support a sufficient quantity of tags. Wiring electronic tags was also not feasible, he adds, since shelving fixtures are often moved, requiring the rewiring of electronic shelf labels. As the company considered radio frequency identification, it did not find any existing technology that met its requirements.

"We found no chip existed to meet the cost needs, the low power requirements or the read range we wanted," Saxena explains. So the company developed its own 2.4 GHz RFID chip with a proprietary air-interface protocol for use in its electronic shelf label, which also contains a coin battery and a chip that controls the label's LCD screen. Each label's RFID chip stores the product's stock-keeping unit (SKU) number, name, price and other information.

The two retailers, which decline to be named, have installed Altierre's RFID readers in the ceilings of each participating store. The company set up a computer server in each store's back room, to receive pricing updates from the retailers' headquarters via an Internet connection. The server sends those changes to the interrogators via an Ethernet cable, and the readers transmit the new information to the appropriate shelf labels. Upon receiving the instructions, the labels immediately update the product information on the LCD screen, as well as sending a confirmation to the interrogators indicating the transmission's reception.

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