Will Smart Labels and The Internet of Things Take Over Shopping Aisles?

Smart Labels – The Next Retail Revolution?

The rise of smart labels could revolutionise the shopping experience for both customers and retailers alike.

Unlike the ‘regular’ Internet, where humans communicate with other humans, the Internet of things (or IoT) enables machines to ‘talk’ to people, to applications and to other devices.

It is not a new concept and could arguably be traced back to the unveiling of an Internet-connected toaster way back in 1989. However, as technology has advanced in recent years so has the IoT and more and more companies and consumers are recognising the benefits it offers.

In the UK, its most common use is in home heating and energy, via the use of smart meters and the like. And in industry, manufacturers and farmers have been the quickest to get on board with this new technology.

However, retailers are quickly waking up to the opportunities offered by the IoT and are increasingly looking to exploit these through the use of smart labelling.

What Are Smart Labels?

So what is a smart label? Very simply speaking it is a product identification chip which contains more highly advanced technologies than traditional bar code data. It holds approximately 2KB of memory space where data is stored in text form to conserve space. The chip’s antenna receives electromagnetic energy from the reading device (scanner, computer, or smartphone, for example) and sends back radio waves for the device to interpret and display as readable data.

One of the big advantages of smart labels is that they are very small and flexible. Traditional bar codes are fairly limited in terms of the data they can store, and altering the packaging process can be costly. Smart labels are a handy alternative, enabling companies to easily attach printed sensors to any type of package, even those that may bend in transit. And these labels have many useful applications for both companies and consumers.

Location Tracking

Smart labels are particularly useful for, and already widely used in location tracking. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags enable farmers and manufacturers to track the whereabouts of their product, from the time it leaves the company premises until it is bought by a customer. This data in turn enables them to ascertain how well and how quickly their product sells and who is buying it – invaluable information when it comes to product development and effectively targeting their marketing efforts.

Location tracking also makes life more difficult for would-be shoplifters, which can help to minimise losses for retailers.

Product Quality

The use of smart technology is also an easy and effective way for retailers to ensure the quality of the products they are selling. Printed sensors enable companies to track temperature and moisture, and confirm the freshness of a product, helping to cut down on waste and ensuring product quality for the end customer.

Product Information

For customers, one of the key advantages of a smart label is the product information that it provides access to. By scanning a food label with a QR code reader for example, a shopper could determine whether their favourite snack was gluten free, or find out how many calories it contains. Similarly, household product labels could contain information on chemicals or allergens as well as usage instructions. So, no more peering at the small print on labels, instead customers can access all the information they need on their smartphone.

The Future Of Shopping?

As the IoT develops further and smart labels get more sophisticated, customers and firms look set to benefit from a shopping experience that is easier, quicker and a whole lot more convenient. Supermarket queues for example could become a thing of the past with label readers at the store exit calculating the value of the basket and sending the bill directly to the customer’s bank account.

There are drawbacks of course, with concerns about cyber security and the practicalities around generating unique electronic codes. But if these can be addressed, shopping as we currently know it could undergo some significant changes.

Imagine a future where your refrigerator tracks its own contents and automatically orders your next load of shopping – all while you are busy getting on with other things.

Well, with smart labels, perhaps that future is not too far away.