Shoppers Gain Brand Details at Annapolis Market With RFID

By Claire Swedberg

The Leeward Market Cafe & Grocery has deployed an RFID system from Compass Marketing that lets its customers tap their phones against labels to access information such as gluten or allergens in a product's ingredients, as well as learn about a local charity that provides bakery items to the store.

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Want to know what the Samaritan Women Bakery is and why it is selling biscotti? RFID provides an answer at the Leeward Market Cafe & Grocery, located in Annapolis, Md. Leeward is the first store to adopt an RFID-based system, provided by Compass Marketing, that delivers content about the goods consumers at stores are browsing through with the tap of a smartphone.

The solution, known as Smart Retail Label (SRL), allows the store to share content regarding large consumer brands, as well as local suppliers. The goal, according to Michelle Kirby, a co-owner of the Leeward Market Cafe & Grocery, is to provide shoppers with information about the products they are browsing through, including the presence of allergens and other life-saving data.

Leeward Market focuses on sustainability, and on the transparency of the products it sells. Kirby has a son with allergies, and she says she appreciates the effort shoppers undergo to understand what is in the products they buy. Often, their own health—or a child’s health—depends on it. Therefore, she launched the SRL system to provide that information and more, without requiring users to download an app. The solution was taken live in early March of this year.

The business had been working with Compass Marketing, another Annapolis-based company, to deploy the technology on some of the store’s consumer goods products, as well as a handmade bakery item, so it could determine what value customers received from having access to content about the merchandise. For Compass Marketing, Leeward is the first of what it expects to be multiple customer deployments across the United States. “We thought Leeward was a great place to introduce consumers to our solution,” says John White, Compass Marketing’s CEO. The firm expects to begin deployments with other retailers and brands during the coming months.

The system consists of a Smartrac 13.65 MHz HF RFID tag compliant with the ISO 15693 standard, built into an SRL product label. Each tag is encoded with a unique ID number, and Compass Marketing provides the labels in batches specific to particular products’ stock-keeping units (SKUs). When the store receives new merchandise, White explains, it attaches labels to the packaging of specific goods, then places those items on the shelf as usual.

Customers can then begin using their phones to access data. They can simply hold an Android- or iOS-based phone to within a few centimeters of the RFID label. The tag ID will then be captured by the RFID reader built into the smartphone, prompting the phone to open a URL linked to that ID. For instance, if a shopper were interested in a bottled soda, he or she could view the website of the brand that makes that beverage, then scroll through information about the brand and product (provided that the website offered such details). The system can provide content more specifically aimed at consumers if the brand participates in the program, White explains.

Leeward Market also sells locally produced goods, such as biscotti from the Samaritan Women Bakery. The bakery provides vocational training to women who have been through the shelter program. The women working there learn the skills of food manufacturing and production, then sell the products through Leeward Market. The biscotti arrives at the store pre-packaged. and Leeward Market employees attach an SRL label to each item.

A consumer can then tap his or her phone and view information about the Samaritan Women’s shelter, as well as the biscotti and its flavors. In the future, Kirby says, that information could include ingredients. “It provides a huge branding opportunity for this charity,” she states.

Since the system was taken live, Kirby says, consumers have needed to be educated about how it works. In some cases, the technology provides a greater benefit to store personnel, who can read the tags when shoppers have questions and very quickly access the answers to those queries. In the longer term, Compass Marketing is targeting brands that might want to apply the labels to their products at the point of manufacture, so that potential customers can capture data about the items they see on the shelf, at any store at which they are sold. The URL to which the tag links could be dedicated to providing shopper content.

“Our mission,” White says, “is to empower consumers and retailers to create connections [and] direct relationships.” To accomplish that goal, the company will not only enable consumers to access product data, but also allow them to ask questions or provide comments. “The history of retail has been a one-way relationship. Now, we open up a two-way relationship, [and] the brand has a stronger relationship with the consumer and vice versa.”

Most of Leeward Market’s products are currently tagged, including such items as ketchup, hot sauce, squeeze yogurt, apple sauce, coffee and laundry detergent. While Compass Marketing provides the retailer with tags pre-programmed to link to specific products, companies could perform tag encoding and registration in-house. That process could include scanning a bar code, Google-searching a brand and linking the brand’s URL to a particular SKU.

In general, White says, brands could benefit from better marketing their sustainability, ingredients lists or other information directly to consumers. The data could also enable them to better manage their products. For instance, in the event of a recall, brands could link the tag ID of the recalled goods with information about that recall, thereby preventing consumers from purchasing such items. Locally, meanwhile, the technology company is receiving requests from other Annapolis-based businesses to deploy the system at their sites, including in delis and liquor stores.

At Leeward Market Cafe & Grocery, Kirby says, an effort is being made to keep getting the word out to customers that the feature is available. “Were a small, local coffee shop,” she states, “and we try to gear ourselves toward local customers.” The store is still assessing the interest the technology is receiving from shoppers. Based on the initial responses, Kirby reports, “I think we would continue to use it. It gives our consumers an opportunity to research our products on their own.” Those shoppers can then be assured, before making a purchase, that something they are buying is gluten-free or meets other dietary needs.