Smart shelves: The answer to stores’ inventory loss

By Megan Anderle, Editor and Contributing Writer

Smart shelves, which keep track of inventory, advertise directly to consumers and update prices in real time based on demand, are sweeping big box retailers, solving a pain point in inventory management.

Panasonic on Sunday introduced its Powershelf suite at the 104th annual National Retail Federation (NRF) convention and expo. The fully integrated system, which is battery-free, wirelessly powers electronic shelf labels that can update product prices in real time, as products go on sale or are about to expire. This saves store personnel from having to update price stickers manually.

The shelves, which have sensors embedded in them, notify store managers when products are out of stock, which usually costs stores 4 percent of annual sales, according to Harvard Business Review.

“The paper tag and manual inventory management processes that are being employed today are arguably the most antiquated processes in modern retailing,” Larry McWilliams, co-CEO of Powershelf, said.

John White, chairman and CEO of Compass Marketing, reinforced the need for the product, which is available in 40 stores, including Whole Foods, Lowes and Walgreens.

“When a shelf is empty, no one knows about it, but with this system, you can track every item in any location in the store,” he said.

The Powershelf uses beacons, which are proximity-based communication devices that use low-energy Bluetooth technology to advertise to customers and provide discounts relevant to specific demographics on smartphones.

Panasonic isn’t the only company creating smart shelves. In October 2013, Mondelez International, which makes Cadbury chocolates and Trident gum,announced smart shelves for stores’ displays near checkout counters that would become widely available this year. The shelves’ sensors analyze facial structure and other characteristics to determine age and gender. Then, the shelves display something the person might buy, possibly with a video for that demographic.

Smart shelves are eco-friendly, eliminating the need for price stickers, which are replaced often due to price fluctuations.

“We’re eliminating waste,” White said. “Since we’ve been in 40 stores, we’ve saved 5,000 trees.”

Panasonic’s tags, like Mondelez’s, are also temperature-controlled. When the temperature in a frozen section is higher than it’s supposed to be, the tags alert retailers.

“We’re aiming to reduce food waste,” White said of the systems, which can cost hundreds of thousands to implement depending on how many shelves need to be installed in a store.

As smart shelves make stores’ supply chains more efficient, it’s likely we’ll be seeing more of them in stores in the coming years.

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