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Shopping Cart Tracking Study Highlights RFID Potential

New research from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania uses data collected from a grocery store where shopping carts were equipped with RFID tags and tracked throughout the store's aisles. Called "An Exploratory Look at Supermarket Shopping Paths," the paper offers enlightening conclusions about shopping patterns, some of which fly in the face of conventional wisdom.
May 23, 2005This article was originally published by RFID Update.

May 23, 2005—New research from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania uses data collected from a grocery store where shopping carts were equipped with RFID tags and tracked throughout the store's aisles. Called "An Exploratory Look at Supermarket Shopping Paths," the paper offers enlightening conclusions about shopping patterns, some of which fly in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, shoppers were historically thought to weave up and down aisles, starting at one side of the store and ending at the other. The new research states, however, that shoppers only visit those aisles that interest them. Furthermore, they do not go down the entire aisle; instead they enter the aisle, select their item, and reverse direction back out of the aisle to the perimeter of the store.

The data was generated using the PathTracker product developed by research firm Sorensen Associates. The PathTracker system includes the tagging of every shopping cart at a grocery store. Each such RFID tag is active, emitting signals every five seconds that are registered and stored by the RFID readers situated around the premises. Those five-second reads are then strung together and converted into a visual representation of each cart's path.

According to the Knowledge@Wharton article about the study, the findings "will have important implications for store layouts, product placement, end-cap displays, and relationships between aisles and perimeter spaces." Peter S. Fader, the Wharton marketing professor that led the study, said that "until now there was really no research on tracking the actual buying decision," and he compares the effect of this application of RFID to nothing less than the joining of the east and west coast railroads in the 1800s.

Fader and the other researchers feel that this research is only the beginning. Eric T. Bradlow, another Wharton marketing professor that worked on the study, said "We have all this lore in marketing. If you put popular items like milk in the back of the store, do people make more impulse purchases along the way? Does that actually happen? Imagine if you knew which products were at the back of the store and you could show how traffic flowed or changed because of that."

The fact that the data presented surprising new conclusions is a strong testament to the notion of RFID-enabled visibility as a powerful enhancement to current business processes. It higlights an important point that is relevant to anyone involved in the deployment of RFID: predicting and measuring RFID's ROI is difficult precisely because the granular visibility RFID offers will reveal facts that are unknown today. As in the case of the Wharton study, conventional wisdom will be proven wrong, long-standing assumptions will be tested, and new possibilities will be introduced.

Read the article at Knowledge@Wharton
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