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Tagged Umbrellas to Provide Market Research to Merchants

Philadelphia startup Dutch Umbrella provides RFID-tagged courtesy umbrellas to local businesses, and tracks those umbrellas borrowed by customers.
By Claire Swedberg
Jun 14, 2007When it rains in Philadelphia, a hometown startup has the local businesses covered. Dutch Umbrella provides tagged courtesy umbrellas to local merchants, then uses an RFID interrogator to track those borrowed by the merchants' customers.

Dutch Umbrella launched a pilot of its system two months ago. According to cofounders Joseph Carlson and Karen Rostmeyer, the company expects to move to a full-scale deployment in July, in Philly's Center City District, eventually extending to other neighborhoods and municipalities. The vendor has begun its service with about 300 umbrellas and eight sponsors—all businesses within the six-block neighborhood of Fairmount Park and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

RainDrops—umbrella stands located by the door of each sponsor—contain RFID-tagged umbrellas for customers to borrow and return when it rains.

A sponsor's logo and/or address and phone number are printed on one panel of each umbrella. With eight panels per umbrella, up to eight sponsors can advertise on each. Although participating sponsors purchased advertising only for 100 umbrellas, Dutch Umbrella printed about 200 extras to make the pilot more effective.

Six of the eight sponsors also have been given RainDrops—umbrella stands located by the door of each sponsor's place of business. Customers are free to borrow an umbrella stored in the stand, or return one they have finished using. When a shower strikes, patrons of stores and restaurants in the area can grab a Dutch Umbrella and continue shopping. At sites with RainDrops, they can then deposit an umbrella while they shop, taking another as they leave.

To track the umbrellas' movements, Dutch Umbrella uses a combination of RFID technology and old-fashioned manpower. Each umbrella is equipped with a passive EPC Gen 2 RFID inlay provided by Motorola. The read-write inlay, encased in a plastic tag hanging from a plastic ring attached to the umbrella's handle, is encoded with a unique ID number linked to that umbrella. One side of the tag is printed with a sponsor's name, while the other features Dutch Umbrella's logo and Web site address, as well as the umbrella's tag ID number. The Web site carries information about happenings in the area, and lists the sponsoring merchants.

When it rains, Dutch Umbrella employees walk the streets of Philadelphia with Motorola handheld RFID readers. "We envision doing it on a regular basis," Rostmeyer says, "depending a whole lot on how many people we have with readers." For the pilot, Rostmeyer and Carlson traverse the area with a handheld reader, so the number of reads occurring is not currently as high as what they expect in the future.

The company founders visit each of six RainDrops, capturing the tag ID numbers of the umbrellas found at those locations. They also remove any excess umbrellas and redistribute them to sponsoring businesses that need more. Upon returning to the Dutch Umbrella office, Carlson and Rostmeyer place the reader in a cradle connected to a PC and download the RFID tag data using SQL-based software provided by systems integrator Concept2 Solution. The software associates the umbrella tag ID numbers with the RainDrop location where they were read, thus creating an inventory list showing each umbrella's location.

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