RFID and retail experience innovation
At Omnifi our focus is on what we call ‘front-end’ retail experience, and until recently I thought RFID was pretty boring. It’s certainly a great technology for improving operational efficiency. While this might be the bedrock of retail RFID implementations, I discovered recently, after a visit from Detego Executive Chairman Kim Berknov, that RFID retail experience innovation is a reality and opens up the prospect of quite substantial CX improvements and sophisticated offline/online integration in-store.
If you aren’t familiar with RFID in retail (it stands for Radio Frequency Identification), these small tags are being attached to products (mostly clothes for now) and in combination with readers across stores and warehouses deliver real-time ‘item level’ stock management and supply chain tracking.
In plain English, an RFID enabled supply chain means you know exactly where every single item is, in real time, and leads to huge efficiency gains in retail logistics, operations and theft prevention, as the video below neatly explains.
Beyond ‘foundational’ use cases for retail RFID
While that is great for store operations, it doesn’t mean much for ‘front-end’ customer experience. However these practical ‘foundational’ use cases for RFID are not the only potential benefits for retailers and customers. Being able to machine read, ID and track each product in a retail environment also has huge potential for improving shopper experiences in-store.
Towards ‘frictionless retail’
Having spoken to some of the leaders in in-store retail RFID technology, we’ve glimpsed a future where the act of shopping becomes much easier and more pleasurable through the implementation of RFID powered customer journeys. Rather than simply smooth the supply chain, RFID also has the potential to remove some of the pain points from the traditional shopper journey as well as opening up sophisticated online/offline integrations.
Recognising customers and delivering personalised service and content is pretty easy online, but much harder in real shops. RFID enabled loyalty cards offer the possibility of silently detecting registered shoppers as they cross the threshold. UK based Retail Tech pioneer, Reward Technology, has successfully trialled such a solution. While being recognised is not to everyone’s liking, RFID based sensors in loyalty cards are somewhat less invasive than, say, facial recognition.
Having recognised customers via their RFID enabled loyalty cards, the store now has the power to deliver what we like to call ‘old fashioned service through technology’. The conversation suddenly becomes more relevant if a sales colleagues has access to a shopper’s profile. Their size, their purchase history and perhaps even what they’ve left in their online basket can all be shared with store staff to give them real insight into customer needs and preferences.
While such intimacy may need to be tightly controlled (through permission based access to customer data e.g. ‘may I look up your size?’) it would certainly empower store colleagues to deliver better and more personal service, without the shopper having to lift a finger.
With each product containing its own machine readable ID, there now exists the possibility of seamlessly accessing relevant online content for in-store items. While RFID can’t be read by customers’ own devices, they can be read and sensed by customer facing screens as well as being ID’d and tracked in real time by in-ceiling sensors.
Customers can take an item and hold it up to a screen for more info, suggestions and complimentary products. Items taken into a changing room can be automatically identified, with the mirror offering other sizing options. In combination with RFID loyalty cards, a store colleague could see how a customer has shopped the space and what items they have picked up, tried on and put down, all in real time.
If a store can ID and track the shopper, and can also ID and track individual products, then some very interesting retail journeys become possible.
Shoppers could be charged via their loyalty card linked online account when they take items across the store threshold, so could in theory try items on and walk them out of the store, without having to pay at a till. So, a future store journey could see a customer walk in and then walk out with RFID tagged goods, all without needing to use a screen or speak to a salesperson. Not everyone thinks this extreme ‘friction free retail’ is a good idea, and granted it would initially be quite a strange experience after hundreds of years of queuing at the till to pay.
RFID driven retail experience – fantasy or reality?
What we describe above is not only technically possible, it’s already been implemented. Earlier this year In G-Star’s Union Square store in New York, a number of RFID pioneers got together to implement something that is very close to what we describe above.
In the roof of the store was Impinj’s xArray unit. ‘A fixed infrastructure RFID reader system that provides always-on, wide-area monitoring for real-time identification and location of RAIN RFID tagged items’. Just one of these units can cover a 1,500 sqft store and track each and every RFID embedded item in real time.
Detego’s in-store analytics platform takes the data from the xArray unit and turns it into actionable insight. Their SaaS product integrates with the in-store colleague tools and customer facing interactive screens.
The customer facing element in the store is provided by Inmotion Experience. They’ve installed interactive screens and signage that react to nearby product’s via RFID readers. In the example on the left a customer holds a jacket near a screen to get more information and the system suggests other products to complete ‘the look’.
RFID retail experience – the future?
Most of the action in terms of RFID in retail, certainly in terms of customer experience, is currently concentrated in fashion retail . This is driven by the practical need for this sector to keep a good track on inventory and improve loss management, but also down to the relatively high ticket price for individual pieces. It’s unlikely, at least in the near future, that lower value goods (FMCG for example) will come with RFID tags, but one can imagine electronics and other luxury goods starting to be manufactured with RFID tags built in.
There are some big names backing RFID based retail systems. The Acuitas Digital Alliance is bringing together the likes of RetailNext, BT, and Intel to take real-time advantage of big data and the Internet of Things. The aim, to ‘optimize operations throughout their entire supply chain while better engaging with end customers’.
Their first project, BT In-Store Visibility, an RFID driven in-store stock visibility and customer behaviour analytics platform, is another step towards offline retail environments that act more like online stores, in terms of their ability to recognise and respond dynamically to customer behaviour in real-time.
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