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Retail meets conductive ink technology, prints inventory-aware shelf

An application of conductive ink is helping retailers monitor products on the shelf, correlating sales with placement and alerting security to probable theft.

Thanks to barcode scanning and RFID, retailers can tell when a product enters a store via pallet or package, and when it leaves via checkout line. While it's inside the store, however, a radio blackout prevails. Managers are left with only video or in-person visual inspection -- both costly options.

One obvious problem with that is accounting for (and hopefully preventing) shrinkage, such as theft. Less obvious is the opportunity to know whether pound cake, say, moves faster if placed next to strawberries or at the aisle's end with all the other packaged baked goods, or when stock is running low or depleted in any particular spot.

A new application of conductive ink technology -- ink that can sense and conduct an electrical charge -- can lift that blackout. Now in trial, sensors that are merely printed with a proprietary formulation of this ink can cover a shelf and report which products were removed from it, in real time. T+ink, Inc., an 11-year-old, NY-based company providing the ink and software pieces of the solution, has decided to focus its marketing attention on retail applications, launching Smart Shelf and Smart Peg in Q4 this year.

"What's less expensive than ink?"

While beacons can detect and identify customers' smartphones and "speak" to apps on such devices, they're not being used to keep an eye on inventory. They're too expensive for one thing, said Tristan Louis, T+ink CEO. "What's less expensive than ink?" Near field communication, another wireless link, is also comparatively expensive and doesn't work with all devices.

T+ink's Smart Shelf pipes its events to a manager's iPad or smartphone, polling the shelf every 10 seconds and reporting via an Intel-based gateway appliance and T+ink's cloud application. Another partner in this venture is WestRock, makers of cardboard displays and packaging.

Louis said that retail makes a good target for the huge volume and revenue potential of the vertical's everyday data. By reporting the relative rates of stock depletion in different locations within a store, it can demonstrate whether end-cap (end of aisle) placement is worth the premium brands pay supermarkets for the extra visibility. This can vary from region to region within a chain. "It may be that in the Northeast the deli is the best place to move product, but in the South, it's an end-cap," Louis said.

It can also establish "planogram compliance," such as whether products are actually occupying the particular shelf space that their vendor is paying for.

The app is smart enough to tell one brand of cola from another, done by weight distribution and footprint on the printed shelf overlay. "The bottom of a Coke and a Pepsi bottle may look the same to the human eye, but because they're coming from different production lines and because the brands themselves have actually created intellectual property around the base of their bottles, we can use that to understand which product is sitting on the shelf," Louis said.

Conductive ink technology: Helping sense suspicious behavior

Smart shelves can also alert staff or other IoT elements to irregular customer behavior. If five of the same item leave the shelf at once, there may be cause to train cameras on that area. And at the risk of spooking shoppers, they can even trigger a beacon to offer a coupon on salsa if it detects that someone has picked up chips.

A Smart Shelf conductive layer can be placed upon existing shelving and is reused, through software, for different product arrangements.

T+ink's Smart Shelf and Smart Peg

Smart Pegs, also debuting Q4 2016, are battery-powered and hang on traditional particle pegboard. Similar to Smart Shelf, a Smart Peg knows when a product is added or removed.

T+ink's other retail offering, Touch Code, prints a conductive ink pattern on a label or package that unlocks digital content. Aimed at in-store marketing or even printed advertisements, the visible (or invisible) code is detected by the multi-touch capacitive touchscreen on a smartphone/tablet, launching an interaction. It can give a shopper more information on that item, play a relevant video or invite her to review the product, for example.

"We have developed both an SDK and a software library that can be imbedded within webpages. So the brand that would be launching those capabilities could launch that interactivity through app or page," Louis said.

According to Raghu Das, CEO at IDTechEx, a Cambridge, UK market research firm that covers conductive ink technology, such a function, also could be incorporated into the operating system of a device.

Patterns printed with conductive ink also can be used to distinguish true brand products from knock-offs. That fact hints at one of Touch Code's advantages over QR codes, another print-to-online conveyance. While scannable QR codes can cheaply and easily be copied and shared over the internet by anyone with a digital camera, Touch Codes cannot.

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