Comment: RFID raises the game while robots attract a new generation of shoppers

RFID technology seems to have been on the brink of greatness for a while now, but finally developments are starting to emerge that could shake up the application of this technology in the retail space.

My second day perusing the innovations on display at this year’s RBTE has left me with two distinct impressions: firstly, that RFID has plenty more to offer retailers than we might have imagined in terms of behind-the-scenes operations, and secondly that humanoid robots are finally beginning to come to life in real world retail stores.

One of the most captivating aspects of the show was how far RFID has progressed. We’ve often heard about how RFID (radio frequency identification) can help to provide an omnichannel experience for the customer, but questions have remained about how this technology will help cut costs, increase efficiency, and ultimately boost profits for the retailer.

The RFID solutions on show clearly now address many of the back-end issues faced by the modern retailer, eradicating, for example, the need for store personnel to trawl each store, scanning each individual item for a stock-take. Instead, retailers can use one centrally-located RFID reader in each store to obtain a global view of their entire inventory instantaneously. Inventory on the shop floor can be separated from the inventory in the stock room, and information on products in both areas can be fed back to head office and to other branches.

This global view should reduce the need to discount items that fail to sell, whether on the hanger or in the stock room. Items that aren’t selling well in one store can be transferred to a different branch where the data shows they have proved to be popular sellers.

Online sales can also be maximized through this process, with systems able to search for stock on shop floors in certain sizes and colours that are no longer available in the warehouse. The entire stock becomes available for sale at any time, which is a big step towards true omnichannel retail.

One major challenge that retailers have always faced is keeping track of stock from the production line, all the way to through the point at which the product is purchased. If manufacturers can enable RFID in items from the point at which they leave the production line, loss and theft can be prevented from factory to point of sale.

RBTE also provided me with the opportunity to catch up with my namesake, Pepper, the humanoid robot developed through a partnership between IBM’s Watson supercomputer and SBRH. Since we last met at NRF in January, SBRH have put Pepper to work in Carrefour stores in France, showcasing its abilities in a live retail environment.

Billed by its manufacturer as ‘kindly, endearing and surprising’, Pepper can interact with humans and recognise the principle emotions. Perhaps in the future, Pepper can be deployed to deal with angry shoppers, however it is currently assisting in the French retailer’s store aisles, engaging with customers and pointing out special offers. SBRH say that retailers enlisting Pepper’s help can judge the robot’s worth by measuring the uptake of those particular offers based on the time at which it recommended them – handy for the line manager tasked with doing Pepper’s quarterly appraisal.

It was enlightening to learn that Pepper’s placement has increased footfall in Carrefour stores, with droves of parents addressing the pleas of curious children who have heard about the robot in their local store. It’s rare to hear of children so eager to be taken along on the weekly food shop and retailers should take note. These are their future customers after all.