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updated: 2/21/2017 11:05 AM

Bringing online advantage to the offline world

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  • Zebra Technologies' SmartSense system uses a sensing appliance that combines video, RFID and ultrasonic microlocationing technologies, and gives retailers real time data to help them improve the customer experience.

    Zebra Technologies' SmartSense system uses a sensing appliance that combines video, RFID and ultrasonic microlocationing technologies, and gives retailers real time data to help them improve the customer experience.
    Image courtesy Zebra Technologies

  • Tom Bianculli

    Tom Bianculli

  • Zebra Technologies' SmartSense system uses a sensing appliance that combines video, RFID and ultrasonic microlocationing technologies, and gives retailers real time data to help them improve the customer experience.

    Zebra Technologies' SmartSense system uses a sensing appliance that combines video, RFID and ultrasonic microlocationing technologies, and gives retailers real time data to help them improve the customer experience.

 
 

There's no doubt e-commerce has put brick-and-mortar retailers on the ropes. While traditional stores have made significant strides to compete with the online giants like Amazon, e-commerce has had the upper hand in collecting and tracking customers' buying habits that can be used to improve an individual's shopping experience.

But Zebra Technologies is looking to level the playing field.

The Lincolnshire-based company, best known for its development of bar code and radio frequency ID (RFID) technologies, recently released a broad-based system for the brick-and-mortar world that collects and analyzes the real time data that drives the online world.

Known as Zebra SmartSense, the system utilizes multiple technologies that collects information from where shoppers are in the store to what merchandise they are putting in their carts.

It also helps retailers manage their inventory to assure popular items are on the shelves for customers, as well as track and prevent potential item thefts.

Zebra's Chief Technology Officer Tom Bianculli said SmartSense is part of the company's Enterprise Asset Intelligence program that grew out of its acquisition of Motorola Solution's Enterprise business in 2014, and is targeted to help traditional retailers compete in an e-commerce world.

"E-commerce has had the ability to collect massive amounts of information about customers online, from customer fulfillment to the warehouse environment," Bianculli said. "All that information and data has not been available to the traditional brick and mortar retailer. SmartSense is about providing those online analytics for the offline world."

The heart of the system lies in a sensing appliance that combines video, RFID and ultrasonic microlocationing technologies, which is mounted on a store ceiling and covers about 1,600 square feet, Bianculli said.

Using a grid of these appliances, the information is collected and fed to a central, on-site server.

The data then can be quickly analyzed and store managers can make decisions to improve the in-store experience immediately.

"If I see a certain inventory item is below a threshold, I can dispatch a staff member to replenish that item because I know there are 10 more in the back of the store," Bianculli said.

The information can also be used to send information back to a customer, providing retailers with upsell and cross sell opportunities.

"You can see where RFID tags are or if they are in motion, and the video can see where shoppers and associates are, and that can be used to bring them together," he said.

"If you know what a shopper has in the basket they're carrying with them, you can cross sell or upsell to that customer directly."

The system can also be a security tool, with its ability to track inventory tags and customer location.

"If you see that 10 tags of the same thing are on the move, or if you see that a customer's path through the store is unusual, you can flag security because of a combination of behaviors," he said.

Although the current system is designed for large-scale retailers -- Bianculli said Zebra has pilot programs running in two major U.S. companies and one European retailer -- he does see a time where the technology could find its way into small and mid-sized retailers.

The key to SmartSense, Bianculli stresses, is that it gives retailers the tools needed to meet customer expectations that have evolved with the boom in online shopping.

"Shoppers' expectations are 'I can get what I want, when I want it, where I want it," he said. "That expectation has become the norm for shoppers.

"(Retailers) need to be relevant to the new generation. The legacy retailers that are going to survive have embraced the notion of getting more information in real time, not just about their shoppers and improving online pickup in stores, but about their store's status and environment to respond more effectively."