Online Furniture Retailer Adds RFID to Its Brick-and-Mortar Showroom

By Claire Swedberg

Made.com is providing customers at its London showroom with tablets that they can use to read NFC tags to learn about each product, while giving the retailer access to data about shopper behavior and preferences.

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Designer-brand online furniture retailer Made.com is employing a solution provided by CloudTags that includes supplying shoppers with tablets so they can access information via Near Field Communication (NFC) RFID tags attached to furniture on display at the company’s London showroom. The solution enables visitors to create a wish list of products they like, for later review, and uses Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons to allow the retailer to track which areas of the showroom shoppers visit, and the amount of time they spend at each location. If a customer opts to share his or her name with the system and create a personal account, it can also link the furniture that individual liked at the showroom with subsequent sales online, thereby providing the retailer with valuable information.

Made.com referred questions about the solution to CloudTags.

At Made.com’s showroom, a shopper can obtain more information about a piece of furniture on display by tapping that item’s RFID tag with one of the tablets that the company makes available to visitors.

CloudTags, an American-based startup, was launched in London in 2012 by CEO James Yancey. Since then, the company has established its headquarters in Atlanta, with an office in London. The firm was founded to provide stores with Bluetooth beacons, as well as NFC- and bar-code-based solutions, to better link online and brick-and-mortar retail environments. For instance, Yancey says, online merchants operating physical showrooms or retail outlets have little knowledge of how effectively their brick-and-mortar locations may be prompting future online sales. Physical stores are rarely able to collect the level of shopper behavior data that online stores can capture, such as which items were viewed and what previous purchases a specific shopper made. CloudTags’ goal, he explains, is to help retailers gain some of these online advantages at their physical locations, and to do so without intruding upon shoppers’ privacy.

CloudTags’ latest pilot, at Made.com, serves as a compromise between data collection and sharing on the one hand, and privacy protection on the other. When shoppers arrive at the furniture showroom, they are invited to borrow one of 10 Google Nexus 7 tablets, which have built-in BLE functionality and NFC readers. A Smartrac NFC RFID tag, made with NXP Semiconductors‘ NTAG203 chip and provided by RapidNFC, has been attached to each item within the showroom, as well as to the picture of each product (displayed on a wall) available exclusively online. The tags number in the hundreds, Yancey says. Installed at various sections of the showroom are a half dozen or so beacons that transmit their unique ID numbers to the tablets via BLE.

The shopper has a choice of signing into the CloudTags system running on the tablet (thereby setting up a personal account that includes her name), or remaining anonymous. In either case, as the customer then moves around the showroom, the tablet captures BLE data and forwards it to the CloudTags software on the company’s hosted server, via a Wi-Fi Internet connection, indicating where in the store the shopper is located, and thus which items she is looking at, and for how long.

If the shopper finds a piece of furniture interesting, she can tap the tablet against the tag mounted on the item itself, or on its image on the wall, enabling her to view data about that product. Upon leaving the store, she indicates on the tablet’s touchscreen whether she would like to save her wish list (containing all items whose tags she tapped) for future viewing. If she elects to do so, she can have that list forwarded to her e-mail address.

If the software is storing the shopper’s personal information, it can then link that individual not only with her wish list, but also with furniture items that seemed to interest her, based on how long the BLE data indicates she lingered in front of a specific item. During the pilot, Yancey says, that data is not being used for marketing purposes, though during a second phase of the trial, the retailer could use the information to further engage with that customer. For example, if she leaves the showroom, returns another day and again provides her personal information, the system can display data on the tablet specific to her interests—for example, it could direct her to an item she looked at online, or suggest a piece of furniture that would go well with another piece she already bought. During this second phase, Yancey notes, additional BLE beacons will be installed in order to provide location data specific enough that the tablet will be able to direct the shopper to an item in which she is interested, based on the tablet’s location.

The system also enables a Made.com staff member to be linked to an online sale of a product with which he or she helped the shopper at the showroom. Each salesperson is equipped with an NFC-enabled badge containing a unique ID number linked to his or her identity. When the employee speaks with a showroom visitor, that associate can tap the badge against the back of the shopper’s tablet, thereby creating a record of helping that person. If the shopper then goes home and later purchases an item from his wish list online, CloudTags’ software links the sales associate’s ID with that sale, providing the worker with a potential bonus for facilitating that sale.

The system, Yancey says, will let Made.com “track the level of engagement” between shoppers and staff members. Moreover, he adds, it can determine “if the omnichannel value of online and physical stores are working together.”

CloudTags’ James Yancey

During the past year, CloudTags has installed similar NFC-based systems at several other British retail locations. At Drop Dead, a youth-oriented British retailer, NFC tags are mounted in strategic areas around the store, against which visitors can tap an NFC-enabled tablet in order to launch data about particular products, or about the punk band after which the store is named. Existing bar-code labels on garments can also be scanned via the tablet’s built-in camera, to obtain specifics about each clothing item. Another retailer, 39-39, is utilizing the technology to provide shoppers with stories—by way of video content and pictures—about the designers who created the product designs. Both systems were taken live in July 2013.

In September 2013, the London store of a third retailer, Harvey Nichols, launched the CloudTags solution employing only NFC RFID technology. The advantages that NFC tags offer, Yanecy reports, are their ease of use, the ability to link to a large amount of data (such as videos), and the fact that shoppers engage with NFC tags at a rate 30 times that of bar-code labels. However, he adds, bar-code labels do not need to be applied to each item in the store, as NFC tags do, since garments come with bar-coded labels already attached.

Since the Made.com trial began, Yancey says, the furniture company’s sales have increased, though the details still need to be reviewed. The system not only provides some excitement for shoppers—as well as data linking a specific online sale to a showroom visit—but also offers analytics that can help Made.com understand how much value the showroom is providing overall by prompting future online sales.

The technology would also work with NFC-enabled smartphones, according to Yancey, but CloudTags encourages shoppers to use the tablet, since doing so does not require showroom visitors to download an app. What’s more, he says, it lets shoppers remain anonymous, if that is their preference.