Observations from NRF’s Big Show, Part 2

By Mark Roberti

RFID solution providers showed off some "secondary" retail applications.


In last week’s column, I shared some observations from the National Retail Federation‘s Big Show 2015 conference (see Part 1). In particular, among the radio frequency identification companies exhibiting, there was a strong push to make solutions easier to use and deploy across a chain of stores. Now, I’d like to share a few more observations.

Last year, all the buzz at the Big Show was about data analytics. I found this curious, since inventory accuracy is only 60 percent to 65 percent at most stores, so much of the data that retailers have is bad, and there really hasn’t been an easy way to capture information concerning customer behavior in stores, the way there is online. This year, there was not much about data analytics. It seemed most vendors were instead pushing mobile and omnichannel solutions. Again, it’s difficult to carry out omnichannel retailing without RFID, because you don’t have the inventory accuracy and data visibility to be able to fulfill orders coming in from multiple channels.

The other thing that struck me was the focus on “secondary” RFID retail applications. Let me take a moment to explain that term. Five or six years ago, the RFID Research Center, then at the University of Arkansas and led by Bill Hardgrave, identified four primary use cases for RFID in retail: improving inventory accuracy, reducing out of stocks, detecting shrinkage and locating products. Other applications, such as improving the customer experience, are considered second-order or secondary use cases. And there were a lot of these on display at NRF.

Impinj exhibited a series of applications developed by partners for its xArray antenna system, which can be placed in the ceiling of a retail store, distribution center or any other location, and thereby locate a tag within a 40-foot radius. One application showed the expected stock on the shelves and the number of each item picked up—inventory-counting at the push of a button. The application also made it possible to locate an item within a store simply by clicking on its image on a screen. It could identify items brought into a fitting room, for instance, and then show images of complementary accessories.

One of the coolest applications involved a display with a rack that holds a snowboard. A shopper could place different snowboards on the rack. The system would read the RFID tag on the board and show a video about that specific board, along with additional information. In some cases, a customer could use a touch screen to customize the board. The app was developed in conjunction with a snowboard manufacturer that wanted greater control over its brand, and over how retailers across the country sell its boards.

Smartrac Technologies showed off a fascinating application for brand owners. Purchasers of, say, running shoes could use their smartphone to scan a Near Field Communication (NFC) tag or QR code on an item, and then scan a billboard from the company, located anywhere in the country, to obtain special deals on new products or services, or information about sporting events in the city. Another application involved a store shelf with an embedded RFID reader. When a customer places an item on the shelf, a screen displays a large image of the item, along with information about that product.

Zebra Technologies‘ booth had a number of interesting demonstrations, developed by its partners and by Zebra (which has now incorporated Morotola Solutions‘ enterprise business) itself. A company called Uberall showed an application that used temperature sensors and StickNFind beacons to monitor goods in the supply chain and in the store, and to provide that information to retailers via a cloud-based solution.

Another application involved displaying information to customers at a wine store. Zebra used Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) beacons to determine that a customer was in front of a large display. Using Zebra’s Zatar cloud-based Internet of Things platform, the store could display information that might appeal to that specific customer, based on profile information. If the customer placed a bottle of wine with an NFC tag on a pedestal, the system showed information about that wine, but tailored other information, such as things that go well with the beverage, to the customer. It might, for example, display a cigar to male customers and chocolates to female shoppers.

Most of these applications are not particularly new. I’ve seen demonstrations of most of them in one form or another for several years. But they were new for most attendees at NRF, who are just beginning to focus on RFID. And I think what many retailers strolling through these exhibits found appealing is that RFID can do more than just improve inventory accuracy and store execution—it can enhance the customer experience in myriad ways. The real competitive advantage of RFID will not be in improved inventory accuracy, but in the other ways in which retailers can take advantage of the technology.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor’s Note archive or RFID Connect.