Autonomous Retail: RAIN RFID & NFC Make it Happen

Autonomous Retail: RAIN RFID & NFC Make it Happen
Let’s say it’s the end of a work day and you’re on your way home, but there’s nothing in the fridge for dinner. Or you’re out with friends on a weekend afternoon and you could use a snack. Or, maybe it’s a school night and your kid has a cough, but you’re out of medicine. You know what you want and you don’t want to wait. Seeing people wait to pay a cashier or scan items at a self-checkout station can be enough to make you go elsewhere or forego the purchase entirely.

Seamless, Friction-Free Shopping
Retailers understand that making you wait to pay can be bad for business, so they’re finding ways to eliminate manned checkout stations. The goal is to create a seamless, friction-free shopping experience, so consumers who are short on time get what they need without having to wait.

This new approach, which goes by several names, including autonomous retail, cashierless stores, and unmanned retail, can also lower costs and expand market reach. Unmanned stores still need employees to service them – someone needs to restock, clean, and maintain the shop – but not having cashiers means operating costs are lower and the store can use a smaller footprint.

Experience it for Yourself
This past January, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, NXP demonstrated the Smart Market, an RFID-driven solution for autonomous shopping experiences. The demo let people experience the convenience of “grab and go” shopping, and created some serious buzz on the topic.

The next opportunity to experience NXP’s approach to autonomous retail is at RFID Journal Live!, taking place April 2 to 4 at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. NXP is a platinum sponsor of the event, which is the largest tradeshow dedicated to RFID, and will have staff on hand to highlight the RAIN RFID and NFC solutions that enable cashierless shopping.

The Benefits are Clear
There are several reasons why retailers are so interested in autonomous shopping. To begin, unmanned stores can create a competitive advantage in places that typically pose a challenge to brick-and-mortar retail. That is, in areas where stores might struggle, because building permits are hard to obtain, rents are high, the labor market is tight, profit margins are low, or the customer base is small, unmanned stores can deliver a significant competitive advantage.

Stores without cashiers can also take retailers to new places, providing 24-hour access to food and daily necessities in what are often underserved markets, including corporate offices, densely populated urban neighborhoods, and even remote and rural areas.

What’s more, because unmanned stores use digitalization and are linked to the cloud, can provide product-related content anytime, upon consumer demand, while also generating data about consumer preferences and buying habits. That, in turn, can give sellers the insights they need to improve user experiences, tailor sales to individual preferences, and foster loyalty.

Different Methods
A small but growing number of companies now operate unmanned stores in various regions, especially in Asia but also in Europe and the U.S., and many more investors and retailers have announced their intentions to adopt the trend.

The details vary, but the general idea is this: you download a mobile app and register as a shopper. Then, when you’re at the store, you use the app again to initiate a buying session. You select your items, authorize a payment, and go. Some cashierless stores have you scan a QR code to unlock the store entrance or begin selecting items, others have you tap your phone to a NFC tag or reader. You might be asked to scan each item with your phone as you select it and then authorize a mobile payment, or there might be a meter-long scanner that scans your items as you pass by and then asks for payment authorization before you exit the store.

Some stores use sensors and cameras to track your selections and then run facial recognition algorithms to identify and authorize payment from your account. Some use biometrics, such as fingerprints or palmprints, to authorize entry and payment. Some use artificial intelligence to welcome and interact with customers, and some offer video chats that let consumers talk to a remote employee if they need to resolve a payment issue. Some can service many people at once, others are designed for one-at-a-time use.

Wireless is Key
Of the several technologies used to create unmanned stores, two are wireless standards that are already part of the retail world: RAIN RFID and NFC.

Retailers already use RAIN RFID to increase efficiency in the supply chain, with connected tags that make individual items a part of the IoT, and they use NFC to create interactive consumer experiences before, during, and after the sale. For example, RAIN RFID and NFC are currently used in retail applications for a wide variety of tasks:  inventory control in warehouses and store rooms; smart mirrors in dressing rooms; digital signage for personalized in-store product information or special promotions; on-product loyalty schemes that incentive recurring sales; and food, beverages, and medications that track and report their origins, handling conditions, and expiration dates. Meanwhile, consumers, for their part, use NFC-enabled phones to interact with in-store brands and make the mobile payments and other secure transactions supported by payment cards, smartphones, wristbands, and other portables.

In an unmanned store, RAIN RFID and NFC work on their own or in combination to initiate a buying session, monitor inventory, interact with consumers, track product selections, and make payments. In fact, RAIN RFID and NFC enable an operating model that can be scaled to support unmanned stores of varying sizes, from single-serve vending machines and shelves to retail boxes that accommodate two or three people at a time and larger spaces that can handle many shoppers at once.

The Basic Approach
As an example, consider a standalone refrigerator that lets people buy chilled drinks and snacks. The refrigerator has a RAIN RFID reader inside that can read the RAIN RFID tags on each item stocked on its shelves. The reader can scan the entire fridge in one pass, identifying all the products inside without line of sight. There’s an NFC-driven lock on the door that can only be opened via a secure authentication from the consumer’s smartphone.

You, as the consumer, have already downloaded a mobile app and registered as a user, submitting your identity and payment details. When you approach the refrigerator, you tap your phone to the indicated area to start a buying session and unlock the door. You select your items, removing them from the shelves, and close the door. The refrigerator then takes inventory again, to confirm your selections, and confirms the purchase with a message to your phone. The app lets you provide feedback on your experience and, in the unlikely event that something is not right with your purchase – if you are charged for something you didn’t take, for instance – provides direct access to customer service. Each transaction is reported to the cloud, to update inventory counts, log purchases, and generate data about buying trends. The RAIN RFID tags can also be used to monitor storage conditions, to make sure perishables are safe to consume.

The same concept can be used for unmanned shelves, without refrigeration, in places like office buildings or community centers, so people can buy snacks and other convenience items without having to interact with a cashier or a self-checkout station.

Another way to structure a “take and go” concept is to use a vicinity-range RFID standard, ISO 15693, which is compatible with NFC. Electronic Shelf Labels (ESLs), equipped with NFC, present current prices on digital, updateable displays, and offer extra information about the product if you tap the display with your NFC smartphone. The ESL is connected, via ISO 15693, to the retail outlet’s price-management software, located in the store or in the cloud, and can be present the latest prices in real time. The ESLs automate the shelf, with features like dynamic pricing and stock management, and can also be programmed to support self-scan to pay and NFC-based marketing services, such as geo-location, which can be used to target personalized offers in real time. ISO 15693 can also be used at checkout, where readers scan your goods and let you authorize payment with your mobile app.

No matter the approach, RAIN RFID/NFC or vicinity-range RFID (ISO 15693) and NFC, the concept can be scaled to larger footprints. With an elevator-sized store called a retail box, for example, you can offer a wider variety of goods to one or two shoppers at a time, and with a larger store, about the size of a shipping container, several people can shop at once. Complexity increases with the number of shoppers inside the store, but with the right configuration and an appropriate selection of the available RF technologies, it’s possible to track items and complete purchases for larger numbers of people.

NXP is Already There
As a recognized leader in RFID, with top-tier positions in RAIN RFID and NFC, we’re already working with retailers to deploy unmanned stores. Our portfolio builds on our long-standing expertise in security, too, so everyone involved – retailers, suppliers, and consumers – can trust the transactions made in unmanned stores and can rely on these technologies to maintain the necessary privacy.

Our UCODE 8 RAIN RFID solutions can scan up to 1000 items per second, with an exceptionally high accuracy rate of almost 100% and are the preferred choice by far for tagging merchandise in retail applications.

Our ICODE platform is the de facto standard for high-frequency (HF) smart label solutions operating at 13.56 MHz and supporting ISO 15693/ISO 18000-3 compliant infrastructures. Our partners are already using ICODE, with its NFC compatibility, for take-and-go store concepts.

Our NTAG portfolio of NFC tags and label ICs leads the market and is fully compliant with NFC Forum standards to ensure maximum interoperability with NFC-enabled smartphones, wearables, and other portable devices.

Across these portfolios, we offer scalable options for protection, including 128-bit AES cryptography for tag authentication, special anti-counterfeiting features, privacy protection, and tag-tamper indicators, to ensure trusted payments and a higher level of confidence that purchases are safe to consume.

We also support all our solutions with an extensive network of support partners, so retailers anywhere in the world can access local application and solution expertise.

 

To learn more about how NXP uses RAIN RFID and NFC to support cashierless stores, visit www.nxp.com/rfid and download our new brochure on Smart Retail.

Mahdi Mekic
Mahdi Mekic
Mahdi Mekic has been in the RFID industry for almost 15 years and has had a broad range of roles involving product development, application support, solution management and marketing. Currently Marketing Director at NXP Semiconductors, Mahdi explores the use of innovative RFID products and services in new application markets such as automatic vehicle identification, smart manufacturing, food retail, airline baggage tagging and blockchain.

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