Delta Air Lines Shows the Future of Retail

By Doug Hope

Yes, that's right. An airline has deployed a customer-facing RFID solution that has huge implications for retailers.


If you want to experience a probable future retail reality, don’t go to a store. Fly Delta Air Lines. Yes, seriously, Delta Air Lines. Delta has done something that no retailer has done yet—let me explain. In the Atlanta airport, at gates T1–T3, the service counter is gone. In its place is a radically slimmed-down mobile pod that wheels from gate to gate as needed. Newly unleashed service agents use a device called the Nomad, which can provide complete service to passengers as agents mingle among the crowd.

Boarding pillars segment passengers into separate lines, depending on loyalty level. As each group is called, passengers approach the new E-Gate, using their phones to self-board (again, no agent). The E-Gate is a preliminary innovation for self-boarding; biometric boarding is coming later this year. These various technologies are being introduced to reduce friction at the critical point of boarding flights, helping to focus agents on passengers with needs rather than tasks for which they are no longer needed—mirroring what a cashier-free retail world would look like.

What no retailer has done, and Delta has, relates to its new RFID baggage-tracking system, introduced last year (see Delta Gives Green Light to RFID Baggage Tracking, Airline Industry Study Is Upbeat About RFID-Based Baggage Tracking and Delta Improves Customer Experience and Boosts Efficiency With RFID Baggage Tracking). When Delta put RFID tags onto every piece of luggage—via self-adhesive baggage tags it was already using—it not only created a far more effective system to track bags, but also introduced a passenger-facing feature via the Delta app, which automatically notifies passengers when their baggage is loaded onto the aircraft, and when it arrives at the luggage carousel at the end of their flight. This innovation has delighted Delta’s passengers, while creating a far more efficient system that, according to a (relatively lonely) Delta baggage claim office staffer whom I interviewed, “changed everything” for the better.

So far, I know of no retailer that has pointed RFID technology to shoppers through their mobile devices (so-called “magic mirrors” in dressing rooms don’t count). Retail supply chain, logistics, inventory control and security types have been using RFID to improve those areas of their business. But leveraging RFID—empowering shoppers to use it—doesn’t exist in retail, despite the fact that more than 40 percent of the apparel companies now tag their merchandise, along with significant innovations in RFID readers that are capable of real-time 100 percent accuracy, not to mention rock-bottom pricing on tags.

Imagine a revenue-boosted RFID retail world that allows shoppers to find—and even purchase—any item in a store, even if that item is in the back room. Or the ability to reach consumers via their devices with real-time, relevant information regarding goods in which they’ve expressed interest, just as PC and mobile users are retargeted with reminders of products they have browsed online.

Right now, it’s just a hopeful fantasy, waiting to take flight.

Doug Hope is the founder and show director of GlobalShop and a co-founder of design:retail magazine, an Emerald Expositions publication.