Sensor Fusion

The future of retail is not only a single-technology solution, it is an “all-the-technologies solution.” By Justin Patton 

Everyone knows how a point-of-sale system works. Stand in line, unpack items to the counter, and scan them for checkout. The process is tied together by that magic technology, the barcode scanner. With one tiny laser light, hundreds of items an hour can be accurately tallied and sold. In reality, the barcode scan is only one of an array of sensors all working together, with weight sensors in the hands, item identifiers in the eyes, and learning algorithms in the brain of the cashier that recognizes when pricing patterns don’t fit the items.

Bringing Sensors Together

This is why self-checkout kiosks usually include weight sensors, which often include human monitors nearby, and are rarely used for high value items. The barcode scanner appears as the star of the show, but it’s one of a whole suite of sensors for fast, efficient checkout, and one of the reasons human cashiers may not be going away as quickly as technology news headlines would have us believe.

This is sensor fusion at its most simplistic: bringing several sensors together on an item simultaneously, and using input from each in parallel, or even asymmetrically, to arrive at correct answers quickly, accurately, and with backup verification.

While the barcode scanner has reigned as the apex of store technology since the late 1970s, sensor technology has been progressing for 40 years in other fields of manufacturing, logistics and entertainment. Bluetooth in our phones can accurately locate exactly where we are. The Xbox Kinect can identify your child’s dance moves and match them with onscreen characters. RFID sensors quickly inventory mass quantities of packages.

We use these sensors to take family selfies with animated dog-ears imposed on them, or make race cars appear to zoom across photos through smartphone cameras. So why is it that your local grocery store’s most advanced piece of technology is the barcode scanner that’s been making the rounds of retail stores since Huey Lewis and the News were still new?

Sensor Fusion Elevates Retail

This won’t stand. Online retailers have been picking off consumers for years with tailored product offerings based on thousands of hours of browsing data and complete product purchase histories. Billions of dollars are being poured into virtual reality systems to make online experiences even closer to reality.

Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar retailers have the ultimate VR showroom, with reality minus the virtual, but little of the consumer tracking visibility of the online stores. Behind it all, we have truckloads, trainloads, and shiploads of product flowing all over the world, feeding both retail networks, and tethered by a tenuous web of paper manifests, complex email interactions, self-evolved data exchanges, and good old institutional knowledge.

This is where sensor fusion finally comes to retail, and things are changing quickly. Amazon’s Go store was a leader, with a whole bevy of sensors revamping the shopping experience. The Go store was the starting line, with almost every major U.S. retailer implementing advanced store concepts.

Sensor Fusion’s Benefits

The ways sensor fusion systems are benefiting retail include:

• Using multiple in-store sensors to gather and analyze data about shoppers’ habits, patterns and preferences.

• Understanding store traffic, from the number of people that enter the store to the way that shoppers navigate around the space.

• Measuring key customer habits to determine new versus repeat customers, customers’ visit frequency and duration, the routes they take throughout the store, what they buy, how much they spend, etc.

• Gaining unprecedented insights into shopper behavior and patterns, which can impact every part of the shopping experience, including store set-up and merchandising, marketing, customer service, improving conversion rates, identifying trends, determining staffing needs and more. Weight sensing devices on merchandising shelves can even provide real-time information about product sell rates.

• Using data about the precise location of merchandise within the store (e.g., shelves, racks, POS displays, etc.) to test the effectiveness of different merchandizing strategies to boost sales.

• Keeping accurate, real-time count of inventory coming into the store (including instantly tracking pallets of product), as well as tracking every product bought.

• Tracking products through the entire supply chain process, identifying in real-time where products are traveling throughout the system, identifying quantities and shortages, determining inventory in warehouses and throughout the sales network and pinpointing problems or backlogs in the supply chain.

• Preventing and tracking theft, using RFID tags for anti-theft and security that are removed or deactivated when the items are bought, and that sounds an alarm when active tags are removed from the store (indicating theft).

A Comprehensive, Holistic Solution

The future of retail isn’t a single-technology solution. It’s an all-the-technologies solution. Savvy operations, marketing, and innovation teams are learning how to galvanize all their sensors at once, with the fastest, most successful using it to view the big picture. The retail industry is now a data industry, and the amount of data that retailers need to understand and consider has become massive.

Sensor fusion is an efficient, holistic, comprehensive and accurate way to collect, review and analyze it all, allowing retailers to make more informed decisions that will determine whether they become the stores of the future or nostalgia of the past.

Justin Patton serves as director of the Auburn University RFID Lab, which specializes in the business case and technical implementation of radio frequency identification tech in retail, supply chain and manufacturing settings.