NEW YORK—It isnt every day that people—including most retail professionals—get to catch a glimpse of whats down the road in retail technology. And when a big group of IT vendors, merchandisers and major retailers put together a “store of the future” at the annual convention of the National Retail Federation here, RFID turned out to be a particularly strong draw.
Some attendees interviewed by eWEEK.com expressed concerns over RFID issues such as interference and high-priced labels. But by and large, users seemed optimistic that the lingering barriers to RFID will be resolved at some point.
Stretching along an entire end of the fantasy store inside New Yorks Javits Center, the RFID fare consisted of a Customer Hot Spot, Smart Shelves, Self-Checkout and Perimeter Security.
“Now I can actually visualize how retailers might use RFID technology—for inventory management and so forth. I cant say the same for what I saw at last years [NRF] show,” said Michael F. Cummings, buttonholed by eWEEK.com as he was leaving the RFID section to stroll to another area of the interactive exhibits.
“But I didnt notice any liquid or metallic objects around here, did you? They say that liquid and metal can interfere with reading RFID tags,” said Cummings, who works with retail customers in his job as vice president and global leader of consumer industries and retail at EDS (Electronic Data Systems).
Rather, the RFID-labeled products on the table at the Customer Hot Spot consisted of a T-shirt, a stuffed toy snowman and a copy of “Store,” a trade magazine for retailers.
Standing in the Hot Spot, a couple of show attendees from San Antonio, Texas, played around with the objects. When they picked up either the T-shirt or the magazine off the table, pricing and other RFID information showed up on a wall screen above. When they picked up the toy, the screen showed them a linked Web site.
The RFID labels were attached to the T-shirt and the toy in the same way as for any typical price tag. But there wasnt any RFID label on the magazines cover, so the two Texans kept leafing through the pages to try to find it.
Dale Hollon, an RFID engineer with retail systems integrator IconNicholson, came over and solved the mystery. As it turned out, IconNicholson had embedded the RFID info in an ad inside the magazine.
“People are starting to do some very creative things with RFID,” said Alan Markert, a consultant with Holland & Davis in San Antonio.
Hollon said the snowman toy was really a piece from a game that was popular on some college campuses a few years back. “In the game, the snowmen throw snowballs at each other,” he said.
The linked Web site contained details about the game, plus information about related merchandise for cross-selling purposes. For good measure, IconNicholson tossed in displays of a physical edition of the game—along with a book about the game—around the edges of the Hot Spot.
H.B. (“Skeeter”) Lieberum, managing director at Holland & Davis, noted that although none of his companys consulting customers has actually deployed RFID, some of them are starting to ask questions about it.
“RFID has been very expensive, but the prices are beginning to come down now. Last year, RFID labels cost about 80 cents each. Now, theyre more like 30 or 40 cents,” Lieberum told eWEEK.com.
“And the prices will probably come down further as more people start to use RFID,” Markert added.
-Checkout”> Hollon demonstrated how Self-Checkout and RFID Perimeter Security work. In Self-Checkout, you can pay for your goods just by waving an RFID-enabled credit or debit card in the air. Theres no need to put a card in a slot, Hollon said.
As you exit the store, the Perimeter Security system takes a look at what youve paid for, as well as anything you havent. If you try to make off with any unpaid-for goods, an alarm will sound.
“In reality, retailers rarely chase down shoplifting suspects any more, because of the lawsuits that can ensue. But at least this gives them a record of exactly whats been stolen, so they can re-order the merchandise,” Hollon said.
Meanwhile, in the Smart Shelves component of the RFID exhibit, you could see a back-end inventory system getting automatically updated whenever you picked up an item off a shelf.
IconNicholson, producer of the RFID displays, is one of six “leading partners” in “X05” (Exploration 05), the vendor consortium that put together the futuristic store for the NRF show, in partnership with Hybridia Design.
The other five partners are IBM, Cisco Systems, Takett, ID Merchandising Group, and Wilsonart Laminate. Almost 20 other companies—including Microsoft, Intel, MasterCard, Liz Claiborne, Talbots and Lands End—were sponsors, too.
Outside of the RFID area, Conchango, a third-party partner of Microsoft, demoed Windows CE-based phones—operable over a variety of wireless networks—for mobile viewing of retail KPIs (key performance indicators). “This is great for district managers who move around a lot from store to store,” Conchangos Sang Shin said.
Cisco partner Vocera hawked microphone-shaped devices, worn around the neck, for hands-free inbound and outbound voice communications among roving retail staff over a choice of cellular or VOIP (voice over IP) networks.
Other areas of XO5 attracting especially heavy foot traffic included the TouchTunes booth and IBMs Everywhere Display.
TouchTunes Music, another XO5 sponsor, showed Maestro and AudioWave, two digital jukebox systems from Bose that let shoppers play songs by pressing on touch panels. One user at the TouchTunes booth wanted to know whether the systems can cut CDs for customers, too.
“These systems arent really designed for CD burning, but theres no reason that couldnt be done, too,” said Ed Tuhkanen, director of national accounts.
Demoers in IBMs Everywhere Display booth showed swarms of visitors—including IBM sales reps and their retailer customers—how this product might be used to help shoppers locate books and DVDs on a shelf.
Users were able select a particular book or DVD by touching on an interactive portion of the shelf, surrounding wall or nearby floor. Then the requested volume was highlighted via an attached computer and lighting system.
For the moment, the Everywhere Display has re-entered beta, said an IBM official on hand at the booth. IBM had released the product, but now has pulled it back so as to get more feedback from users.