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RFID Umbrella Sharing Launches in Philadelphia

A startup in Philadelphia has launched an innovative application that blends RFID, umbrella sharing, and mobile advertising. The company, Dutch Umbrella, places RFID-tagged umbrellas at sponsor locations around the city which the umbrella-less, rain-drenched public can borrow for free.
Jun 13, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

June 13, 2007—A startup in Philadelphia has launched an innovative application that blends RFID, umbrella sharing, and mobile advertising. Dutch Umbrella places RFID-tagged umbrellas at sponsor locations around the city which the umbrella-less, rain-drenched public can borrow for free.

It works as follows. Dutch Umbrella solicits local merchants as sponsors for the service. Merchants like hair dressers, restaurants, bars, and retailers -- any business with walk-in clientele -- are the primary target. In exchange for a $100 per month fee, sponsors get their logo emblazoned on Dutch Umbrellas (each panel of a Dutch Umbrella has a different sponsor's logo). They also receive the Dutch Umbrella receptacle RainDrop in their establishment, which holds about a dozen umbrellas and, arguably, positions the merchant as a participant in a progressive public service.

A customer, in turn, can use an umbrella free if she finds herself stranded inside by inclement weather without proper raingear. She then returns the borrowed umbrella to that or any other RainDrop throughout the city. The program launched in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, and, according to a map on its website, has six participating merchants so far, including three bar-restaurants, a hair salon, a coffee shop, and a framing store.

Each umbrella has a durable Motorola RFID tag hanging from it, which enables the collection of data that Dutch Umbrella then provides as part of its service to sponsors. A company employee periodically visits each RainDrop around the city to identify and inventory the umbrellas. (The RainDrop bins are not currently equipped with their own RFID readers, though this is planned.) By comparing an umbrella's current RainDrop location to previous locations, the company can infer the umbrella's travel path -- or, more importantly, where the client that deposited the umbrella came from before visiting the merchant. Having visibility into where customers are coming from will allow the merchants to better target their local advertising. If a restaurant learned, for example, that many of its lunchtime customers arrive from a neighboring hair salon, it could work with the salon to enhance promotional efforts.

Dutch Umbrella's success rests on whether there will be enough volume of usage, both in terms of sponsors and umbrella borrowers. If just a few dozen umbrellas are used a few days per month, the collected data will likely not be sufficient to offer sponsors valuable insights. The company seems aware of this, however, and in its marketing literature points to Philadelphia's "41 inches of precipitation per year, 8 to 11 days per month" as evidence of potential demand for the umbrellas.

Dutch Umbrella is part of a growing trend in which a pool of assets for use by the public is tagged with RFID to track usage and inventory. As another example, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is launching an RFID-enabled bicycle-sharing program for the public in which users can borrow and return bikes to unattended racks stationed around the city (see Tulsa to Deploy RFID Automated Bike Rental Racks).
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