By Claire Swedberg
Nov. 2, 2011—Two major grocery chains, one located in Israel, the other in the United States, will begin piloting a new RFID
-based system that provides intelligence to store shelves by detecting when a product is placed onto or taken off a shelf, as well as who is performing that action. The solution, scheduled for deployment early next year, was developed by Colorado-based startup firm ShelfX
Ran Margalit, ShelfX's founder and CEO, has a background in both software and hardware for mobile phones. He says he was inspired to create a system that would make the shopping experience more like it once was—when customers were greeted by name, selected the items they wished to buy and then completed their purchases without having to wait in line or have bar codes scanned. The technology is intended to eliminate point-of-sale (POS) counters at which each item's bar code must be scanned, along with the resulting queues, while making more space previously dedicated to POS terminals available for stocking additional product. The solution is also intended to help stores track their own product inventory, and ensure that items are restocked in a timely manner.
Ran Margalit, ShelfX's founder and CEO
The ShelfX system features a weight-sensing mat integrated with an RFID reader
, an LCD display screen and a ZigBee transceiver
. The mats, which are placed on a store's shelves, are designed to detect changes in the weight of products stacked on top of them, though that sensitivity can be dialed up or down, based on the goods being stocked. For example, a box of Band-Aids might necessitate greater weight sensitivity, while five-pound bags of flour would require less.
Upon installing the system, a store would first situate the mat on the shelf, with the unit's reader and LCD screen positioned at the shelf edge, then place products on top of the mat. Each staff member would be issued an ID badge containing a high-frequency
(HF) 13.56 MHz passive RFID tag
made with an NXP Semiconductors
that stores a unique ID number linked to that employee's identification. A worker would wave his badge within 7 inches of the reader, causing the unit's LCD screen to greet that individual by name. The first time that a product is placed on a shelf's weight-sensing mat, a worker would employ an Apple
iPad to input the stock-keeping unit (SKU) of the product being loaded, as well as the quantity of items. Later, once that shelf requires replenishment, an employee would again place his badge near the unit's reader, and the system's back-end software would calculate the quantity of additional products being stocked (based on the changes in width, as measured by the sensor
mat), and record that stocking event.
The mat's sensors can not only measure the amount of weight on top of it, thereby enabling the back-end software to calculate the quantity of products, but also detect where the products are located on the mat, based on the level of pressure exerted on those sensors. Therefore, if a shelf has all of its products pushed to the rear, or if it needs to be restocked, the system could detect that status and send a text message or e-mail to a staff member to take corrective action.
Upon arriving at the store to shop, a customer first picks up a bracelet or ID badge containing the same type of built-in RFID tag
being used by the staff. (As an alternative to the badge, employees or shoppers could also utilize a Near Field Communication [NFC
]-enabled mobile phone.) Before removing a product from the shelf, a customer would present the bracelet or badge to the reader, which would transmit the tag's ID number via an 802.15 ZigBee mesh network, formed by all of the shelf units installed throughout the store, until it is received by ShelfX software running on local and cloud-based servers. The LCD screen also displays the product's cost, while storing a record of the total cost of the goods being purchased. With each new selection, the individual would bag the items in his cart while shopping. The system in the produce area, for example, can detect the weight of a piece of fruit or vegetable being removed, and automatically bill accordingly.
In the event that someone removes a product without presenting a tag
, the LCD would display a request for that individual to do so, while the device would emit a beeping sound for five seconds. If, after 12 seconds, no tag is presented and the item is not returned, an alert would be issued to authorized employees.
Once finished shopping, the customer would stop at a kiosk equipped with a mag-stripe reader
and an RFID interrogator
, where he would swipe a credit card and have the bracelet's or badge's tag read, thereby linking the two. The kiosk system would then prompt the user to answer several questions, including whether that individual wishes to keep the bracelet or badge, and thus link the credit card info to that particular card. Next, as a security measure, the solution asks for a PIN password that the shopper would use when making purchases. It would also request that individual's e-mail address, if he wished to receive his purchase history online, as well as personalize his account, by inputting, for example, food allergies so that he could receive an alert if he were to select something from the shelf during a future shopping venture that might cause a health problem. Until linking his identity with the card, the shopper would be greeted by each shelf display with a customizable generic greeting. Once the link is accomplished, however, he would then be greeted on the display by name.
ShelfX has developed a prototype of its shelf-edge product, which it will be testing over the next few months, prior to the launching of the U.S. and Israeli pilots in March 2012. The mats will be available in varying sizes, the company reports, with the first version measuring 8 inches wide and 16 inches long (front to back).
Margalit estimates that the hardware might cost a user approximately $6 to $7 for a single shelf unit, to accommodate one SKU. The total price tag to purchase the hardware, he says—including shelf units, RFID bracelets and a server—will average $60,000 to $70,000 for a store containing 10,000 different product types, though he notes that the system may be offered to end users on a lease basis.
Software and access to server data are not included in that price, Margalit says, but would be billed monthly. The information would be made available to stores for a monthly fee, which has yet to be determined. He predicts that the technology would likely provide a return on investment
(ROI) to stores within approximately six months, by reducing the amount of labor required to sell products at the point of sale, opening more space within a store for additional purchases, and increasing the volume of purchases by making the shopping experience more convenient for customers