Revolutionising Retail: The Transformative Impact of Batteryless IoT Technology
Kevin Ashton is sometimes called the “Inventor of IoT” since he first used the term in 1999 to describe a system where the Internet is connected to the physical world via ubiquitous sensors. He is a serial entrepreneur and co-founded the Auto-ID Center at MIT.
It is a well known fact that when Kevin Ashton coined the term “Internet of Things” in 1999, he was essentially talking about a system of interconnected sensors bringing internet connectivity to physical objects in a retail space.
In a way, the very idea of IoT was conceived in relation to the retail industry. It should come as no surprise to anyone then that the IoT industry, today, is used in a number of innovative and exciting ways within the retail space. In fact, one could argue that IoT technology is probably the biggest disrupting influence the retail space has seen in decades.
As an ever increasing proportion of consumer-facing trade moves online, the retail industry has been left scratching its heads for ways to attract more consumers. The retail industry has made a concerted move towards offering consumers a more enjoyable and involving shopping experience. The widely held belief is that while online shopping scores big points in terms of convenience, ease of use and cost, brick and mortar stores are still where it’s at in terms of experience.
In many ways, the IoT revolution in the retail space has centred around this trend of maximising interactiveness and driving a more engaging shopping experience for consumers.
The retail industry is undergoing an unprecedented transformation, fueled by innovative technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT). In the middle of this revolution are microcontrollers and sensors, specifically batteryless versions, creating new possibilities for business operations and customer experiences. This technology offers numerous advantages, reshaping the retail sector in significant ways.
What is IoT Technology?
The Internet of Things (IoT) is essentially a system of interconnected sensors that collect and process data, allowing for everyday objects around us to be connected to the internet. This allows for a seamless integration of the digital world with the physical world, bringing about a ton of benefits in the process - improved efficiency, more granular control of micro-processes, savings and much higher levels of functionality.
Today, you would be hard pressed to find an industry that hasn’t in some way been transformed by the internet of things. From agriculture to healthcare and everything in between, connected technologies have revolutionised the way we process information and in turn, the way we interact with the world around us.
From wearable devices to industrial applications like predictive maintenance and safety monitoring, the Internet of Things has truly come a long way in just a short period of time. In this time, it has also evolved quite a bit - for the longest time, IoT sensors and microcontrollers were powered by batteries. This was a huge limiting factor that curtailed the explosive growth that was forecast for IoT technology in the heady early years. However, since then, we have managed to break through this bottleneck with the advent of batteryless IoT. Today, batteryless microcontrollers are all the rage and represent the very cutting edge of connected technology.
Microcontrollers and sensors play a critical role in IoT systems by enabling physical objects to interact with the digital world. Specifically, batteryless microcontrollers and sensors have emerged as an innovative solution to some of the challenges faced by IoT deployments, such as the need for constant power and maintenance.
Batteryless microcontrollers come with a number of advantages over their battery-powered counterparts - for one, they are cheaper to manufacture and run - this one’s probably a no-brainer - fewer moving parts means lesser costs, obviously. Moreover, over the lifetime of the product, they translate to massive savings thanks to them not requiring battery replacements or as much periodic maintenance.
The biggest advantage that batteryless microcontrollers bring to the table however, is that they eliminate (or at least mitigate) the deadly environmental scourge of battery waste - every year, billions upon billions of dead batteries are discarded into landfills and oceans, toxifying our environment in no small way. Moreover, mining for the minerals that go into the production of these batteries is a whole other hornet’s nest, with its own laundry list of humanitarian and environmental concerns.
This being the case, it has been clear to industry-insiders and experts for a number of years now, that batteryless IoT is really the only way forward for connected technologies, as we move into the future.
Batteryless Microcontrollers and Sensors in Retail
Now, let’s get to the meat of the affair - how is the internet of things transforming the world of retail technology?
Retail IoT is now turning into a veritable cornucopia of interlinking technologies that work together to change the way we interact with outlets - this includes RFID tags, smart shelves, batteryless ESLs and a whole lot more.
Fundamentally, retail IoT is no different from any other application of connected tech, in that it’s aimed at reducing waste, driving operational efficiency and improving user experience. Let’s take a look at the various ways in which these technologies are being deployed in the world of retail.
When we enter a shop and see aisle after aisle of neatly stacked goods, seldom do we spare a thought for the amount of logistics, organisation and work involved in achieving that level of compactness and order. Inventory management, without getting too much into detail, refers to the side of the retail business that deals with the organisation of supplies in keeping with demand.
Today, retailers are utilizing RFID technology and sensors for efficient real-time inventory management. RFID devices, capable of reading product tags without needing direct line-of-sight, offer retailers a streamlined approach to monitoring stock levels, locating misplaced items, and potentially deterring shoplifting.
Let’s take the example of Walmart - Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, has deployed RFID tags on individual items, helping them track inventory more precisely. This technology has mitigated out-of-stock situations, increased customer satisfaction, and has also driven higher sales in the process.
Smart shelves have emerged as one the most promising avenues in next-generation retail technologies.
Also known as intelligent shelves, these IoT-powered shelves are designed to autonomously keep track of goods as they are sold, aiding in inventory management. They also provide store-owners and entrepreneurs access to real-time data on the traction being generated by various SKUs. Smart shelves employ IoT sensors, digital displays and RFID tags to offer customers detailed information about various products while also providing retailers invaluable insights into consumer behaviour and shopping preferences.
They are able to track when a particular item is running low and offer alerts to the store manager to stock up on the item. These smart shelves are usually equipped with weight sensors and RFID readers. When these sensors are batteryless, that saves retailers a bunch of time and resources.
Today, this technology is being embraced by a number of massive retailers - most notably, Amazon go stores have employed smart shelf technology to great effect - these shelves go further than just track items - they are able to detect the items customers pick up and put back on the shelves, completely eliminating the need for traditional checkout lines.
Automated Checkout Systems
Batteryless microcontrollers and sensors are being used in automated checkout systems. They work in a really simple way - customers simply walk into the shop, pick up what they need and just leave.
A real-life example of this would be the Amazon go stores we mentioned earlier. In such a model, there is simply no need for a traditional billing counter - IoT sensors are able to track the items that the customer has purchased and charge it to the customer’s preferred digital payment method.
This is facilitated by a huge interconnected system including hundreds of cameras and wireless sensors.
Companies have been using big data to gather intelligence on consumer behaviour for a number of years now - today, IoT sensors are being used in a big way to facilitate personalised marketing.
Wireless sensors are being deployed in store aisles to track how long customers dwell in various sections of the store - these data points are then compiled and processed in the backend to give manufacturers and retailers access to highly granular data about consumer preferences which is then used to craft highly targeted marketing campaigns.
Digital Signages and Shelf Labels
IoT-powered digital signages are taking over retail outlets - and for good reason.
Traditional shelf labels and signages could only display static content - at the most, they could handle a couple of price changes every now and then (i.e. the digital ones). But today, we have shelf labels and digital signages that come with a whole host of nifty features - they can show various kinds of dynamic content and switch between them automatically at assigned times. In some advanced systems, they are also able to incorporate cameras to switch between various kinds of content depending on the type of demographics the store is handling at that moment.
This allows marketers and retailers to tailor their marketing and advertising to a high degree. Moreover, some of these signages also come with touch screen capabilities which allows the customer to have an interactive, hands-on experience. Like we saw in previous sections, this also has a component of data-analytics, giving retailers access to a rich trove of information on the buying habits of their customers.
Batteryless shelf-labels are another breakthrough in this area. Traditionally, electronic shelf labels (or ESLs) are powered by coin cells. Typically, each shelf label uses about 2 coin cells and an average store uses about 5000 of these at any given time - do the maths yourself - the environmental implications are staggering to say the least. These are all batteries that will end up in landfills and oceans. Batteryless shelf labels solve this problem and more - our very own ONiO shelf labels are 100% self-powered, drawing energy from solar and RF energy. They can handle multiple price changes per day effortlessly and also work great on the lower shelves, which don’t get a lot of light.
Advantages of Batteryless IoT in Retail
We keep going on about batteryless - here’s why it’s super important that moving forward, IOT solutions are self-powered. The advantages they bring to the table are numerous and hard to argue with.
Better Green Credentials
This one’s a no brainer - self-powered IoT dramatically slashes the carbon footprint associated with IoT systems. Batteryless IoT devices are typically powered by energy harvesting technology - this means that they are able to harvest the energy they need from their surroundings - this can be in the form of RF, solar, piezo etc. among others.
With sustainability becoming of paramount importance to all large companies, this is by far the biggest benefit that batteryless IoT brings to the table.
Large scale IoT deployments typically require a lot of resources to be spent in lieu of periodic maintenance and battery replacements. With batteryless IoT, this problem is simply eliminated. Because they have no batteries, there is no question of replacement - that one’s obvious. But what’s also pretty cool is that these systems require less maintenance overall, thanks to their lighter builds - they have fewer moving parts and therefore, things go wrong less often.
In most cases, batteryless IoT systems just keep working - no problem whatsoever.
Using IoT in retail outlets gives us access to tons and tons of highly relevant data that can be used to glean valuable insights on customer preferences and habits. This information can go a long way towards tailoring the shopping experience towards the needs of the customer, driving higher rates of customer satisfaction.
Better In-store Experience
Some of the technologies that we’ve covered in this post such as smart shelves and automated checkout go a long way in offering customers a more snag-free shopping experience. These technologies eliminate pain-points from the customer’s in-store experience in a number of ways.
With e-commerce burgeoning at the rate it is, retailers have been looking for ways to draw customers into traditional brick and mortar stores - with IoT-based tech like smart screens and signages, they are able to offer their customers a more interactive experience that actually warrants a trip to the store.
Technologies like real-time inventory management allow stores to avoid loss of potential sales due to stock availability issues.
With IoT technology, shops are able to track items that are running low in real-time and make arrangements accordingly. This also means that there are fewer cases of customers getting disgruntled due to item unavailability, further bolstering sales in the long-term.
Microcontrollers and sensors also play a huge role in maintaining a high standard of security in retail settings. Sophisticated IoT systems including cameras and sensors are being used to track unexpected movements in stores or even after-hours activity for that matter.
When high value items are moved, the systems are able to pick up and alert the security team so they could be on high-alert. This can go a long way in countering thefts.