Omni-channel retailing has revolutionised the way people shop, with consumers now able to buy and research products online, on a tablet or on a smart phone. And there appears to be great potential to leverage RFID for even greater benefits, including smart shelves, mirrors, and fitting room interaction.

The more spectacular uses of the technology in retail environments have come a long way since Prada's early experimentation with RFID-enabled smart mirrors more than 10 years ago.

The technology has become more robust and more seamlessly integrated with a physical store. In Burberry's Regent Street flagship in London, store mirrors, triggered by RFID chips in the garments, turn into screens inside this high tech branch, providing information and videos about the particular garment a customer has in their hands, where it was made or its history.

Shelving technology has likewise evolved significantly. Smart shelves now have the potential to communicate directly with a customer through a smart phone about a certain product.

French company Store Electronic Systems (SES), for example, has developed a new smart shelf with technology provider and semi-conductor specialist NXP using near field communication (NFC).

NFC, while in its early stages, represents an important new development in retail technology. Based on RFID protocols it essentially allows a customer to use their NFC-enabled smart phone or device as a reader. The range is limited to just a few centimetres and only one tag can be scanned at a time (originally conceived for contactless credit card payments), so this is not a replacement technology for current item-level RFID tagging.

But the NFC tag can hold more complex data and allows customers to interact directly with it, accessing a product's history, their loyalty programme or other information by simply passing their phones close to a hang tag or shelf label.

According to Prof Antonio Rizzi of the University of Parma's RFID laboratory in Italy, we are likely to see more and more joint ultra-high frequency UHF-NFC tags that combine RFID capabilities with NFC functions, guaranteeing all the supply chain advantages as well as the possibility for the customer to interact with the product.

Prof Rizzi said the most innovative applications on the shop floor were just starting to emerge. 

"In fitting rooms, for example, it's possible that a product could be taken into the fitting room and the sales associate could know via a tablet what exactly was in there. They might know exactly what matching garment or accessory should then be taken in there to guarantee a sale," he said.

The professor said his laboratory was currently trialling social media-linked fitting rooms together with retailers. A social media fitting room can link the garment's RFID-NFC chip to an NFC-enabled phone and to the customer's Facebook or Twitter page to get the opinion or feedback of friends about what they are trying on.

"It's free advertising through the internet [for the brand] and it's possible to have all your friends with you in the fitting room," he said.

Waning privacy debate 
This evolution has been possible thanks also a maturity in the privacy debate surrounding product identification technologies like RFID.

When it was first introduced on an item level to department stores such as Walmart, RFID attracted significant opposition from privacy advocates who condemned the tracking of purchases or shopping behaviour that might be exploited for marketing or, it was thought at the time, more sinister purposes.

With the improvement in public information about RFID, and attention diverted to more pressing personal privacy issues like the US government's PRISM tracking of personal telephone data or Google and Facebook's user tracking to push behavioural marketing, the intense privacy debate around RFID appears to have waned.

According to Sybille Korrodi, marketing chief of woven label manufacturer TexTrace, this has had a lot to do with how manufacturers and retailers have communicated with their end customers.

"We recommend that brands be transparent about the use of the technology. Customers will appreciate if they're informed and be happy to learn about benefits such as product availability at all times - in the end RFID is also about customer retention. We therefore do believe that brands who proactively communicate about it, and use RFID technology for customer experience as well, will benefit the most," she said.

Mark Stier, of Tyco Retail Solutions, agreed, saying that consumer familiarity with the technology has also helped. "People now understand that there is no personal information on the tag itself, even in your shopping bag the only thing that someone could read in theory if they passed nearby would be the SKU [stock-keeping unit]", he said.

RFID's performance as a tracking device has also outweighed privacy issues in certain product categories. Italian bag company Braccialini, for example, combats the grey market with a sewn-in RFID chip that inspectors can unobtrusively read with a handheld device.

In high-end luxury segments subject to warranties or personalisation, sewn-in chips that are not killed at the moment of sales can also offer consumer protection by assuring authenticity and by storing warranty data.

Korrodi said she thought the best solution was to put the chip on standby at checkout instead of killing it, so that important information such as this could be stored. But the key issue was informing customers about the technology and what it can and cannot do.

For this to happen in the European Union (EU), a set of voluntary EU guidelines developed by EU institutions with the EU retail sector may need to change. They currently require customers to be informed of the use of RFID in a store and on a garment, and that the chip is killed on purchase unless the customer explicitly requests otherwise.

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