Price tags tell a story. When first introduced by retail pioneer John Wannamaker in the 1860s, price tags said as much about the value and worth of a product, relative to others in the store, as they did about the trustworthiness of the retailer. At that time, fixed pricing was unheard of, and haggling was still commonplace. Price tags kicked off an honest dialog between retailer and shopper, and as a result, business boomed.
Over time, price tags evolved to say much more. They came in different colors, drawing shoppers’ attention to the “cool” or “new” or “discounted.” They could literally show shoppers what the price of an item “WAS,” which appeared crossed out, and what the price was “NOW.” And as the industry advanced, they came to include bar codes and other data that conveyed as much to retailers themselves, like where to find stock in the warehouse, as they did to shoppers. Today, discerning what a price tag is trying to say (like that a “4” at the end of a Target price tag signals a final clearance price) has spurred a cottage industry of online interpreters.
One hundred and sixty years later, the ambient Internet of Things (IoT) is the humble-yet-powerful, high-tech successor to Wannamaker’s industry-changing invention, allowing products to communicate all the time, and in much more detail. Using a tiny, ultra-low-cost compute device —ambient IoT Pixels — affixed to products and packaging, everything in a store, warehouse, or distribution hub can tell its story. Not only can ambient IoT Pixels tell shoppers everything about a product, they can tell them everything about its production, like whether it was made or grown sustainably, and communicate the product’s real-time carbon footprint, based on how far it traveled, how it was handled, and more.
And it doesn’t have to be a one-way conversation: By combining ambient IoT with generative AI, shoppers (and retailers, for that matter) can ask products anything they want. Like questions about the farms where food was grown or cotton was cultivated (in the case of shoppers), or to give a summation of a product’s supply chain journey (in the case of retailers), in order to identify any problems along the way.
But here’s the most important way in which ambient IoT is the greatest advance since the price tag: Unlike price tags, ambient IoT Pixels know what’s going on around them. They can sense and communicate where they’re located (on the retail floor or on a loading dock), what condition they’re in (too hot or too cold), and even what direction they’re heading (to the correct store, or somewhere else).
Retail companies are now benefiting from ambient IoT. Grocers track produce from farms to store shelves to ensure customers get the freshest food possible. Pharmacies track the location, temperature, and handling of crucial vaccines and medications, leading to healthier outcomes.
Wannamaker would be impressed.
Ambient IoT permeates retail
Ambient IoT marks the next step in development of the Internet of Things. For too long, the IoT has been an Internet of Expensive Things (smart appliances, cars, speakers) but with ambient IoT, everything — trillions of things — can be on the network, communicating their status and giving retailers visibility into the opaque corners of supply chains, manufacturing, distribution, and even consumption.
For example, when a pair of jeans connects to the cloud via ambient IoT (with permission of the owner), a brand can know how often they’re worn and doesn’t have to guess which fashion line is most popular. And it can use the ambient IoT to communicate information back to the consumer about the jeans’ authenticity.
In the food chain, supermarkets can be alerted if temperature-sensitive produce, meat, or dairy have been left out or transported under sub-optimal conditions.
This is because with ambient IoT, sensors, compute power, and connectivity are all around us. Ambient IoT forms the fabric of the physical retail world, connecting it with the digital through several technologies: inexpensive, stamp-sized compute devices (the ambient IoT pixels); standards-based, Bluetooth wireless communications; and self-generating power supplies that harvest radio energy, so no batteries are required. All of this drastically reduces — by a factor of 100X — the infrastructure costs of electronically tagging and connecting products, packaging, pallets, and shipping containers by any other means.
Moreover, employees don’t need to scan anything, virtually eliminating human error from inventory operations. Ambient IoT Pixels communicate via a vast mesh of existing wireless devices, such as smartphones and wireless access points, or though off-the-shelf, standardized routers installed in stores and throughout the supply chain.
Ultimately, ambient IoT can drastically reduce retail shrinkage, for example, because retailers know where all their inventory is. And it can be a boon to omnichannel sales because it eliminates any disconnect between e-commerce sites and physical stores. When a consumer buys online for pickup in a store (BOPIS), ambient IoT confirms the product is, in fact, available in the store, ensuring a positive costumer experience.
Ambient IoT: key to supply chain traceability
In fact, the retail applications of ambient IoT are many. Supply chain visibility all the way to the consumer opens the door to seamless, “as a service” delivery models. It’s no longer the case that a smart refrigerator tries to determine if you’re out of milk; the milk carton knows it’s almost empty and places an order.
Food retailers have already used ambient IoT to help eliminate waste in their supply chains, which is good for the retailer but also good for the planet. Plus, ambient IoT is critical to meeting a growing body of supply chain regulations, such as the U.S. Food Safety Modernization Act, which requires traceability and reporting throughout the food chain.
In fact, traceability laws are poised to impact retailers worldwide across industries, from California’s Transparency in Supply Chains Act to the European Union’s Supply Chain Act. In all these cases, ambient IoT offers the most comprehensive, cost-effective means of tracking products through the supply chain and gleaning their stories, like what they’re made of, where they came from, and whether they’re safe.
But retailers need to get started now to take advantage of ambient IoT. Some of the largest have begun creating the interoperable platforms necessary for pervasive ambient IoT in their supply chains and putting in place systems to interpret the vast stories their supply chains tell. Like in the 1860s, retail will never be the same.
Steve Statler is the chief marketing officer and ESG lead at Wiliot, the Internet of Things pioneer whose visibility platform is enabling trillions of “things” to gain intelligence.