Panasonic Adds Bluetooth Beacons to Electronic Shelf Labels

The Powershelf system, which uses inductive coupling to transmit power and data to wireless electronic labels and sensors, now includes beacons to enable stores to provide data to customers on their phone apps.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 04, 2015

At last month's NRF Big Show, Panasonic System Communications Co., a division of Panasonic Corp. of North America, drew a great deal of attention for the electronic shelf label (ESL) system it demonstrated. The solution, known as Powershelf, now includes new Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacon functionality, enabling retailers using the system to connect their customers with location-based content via a mobile app. The Powershelf was co-developed by Compass Marketing's Tagnetics subsidiary, and by Panasonic System Communications Co., which is also manufacturing, marketing and branding the product, according to Rance Poehler, the president of Panasonic System Communications Co. of North America. Panasonic began offering the Powershelf in 2013. "The Panasonic Powershelf is part of the company's full retail technology solution offering," he says.

The Powershelf is intended to enable stores to electronically update prices on LCD screens mounted on product shelves, as well as receive automatic notifications in the event that a shelf becomes empty, indicating a product needs to be restocked to ensure that sales are not missed. With the new version of the Powershelf, known as the Intelligent Retail Shelving Solution, an additional functionality allows retailers to utilize Panasonic beacons to send location-specific marketing and promotional messages to consumers as they walk past the shelves in store aisles.

The Powershelf electronic label, mounted on a shelf rail, receives power and product information to display by means of wireless inductive coupling technology.
Traditionally, beacons require battery replacement, which can be inconvenient for use on shelves at stores if hundreds of beacons are used. Electronic shelf labels can experience the same problem, since they require a battery to display data or receive updates. Powershelf employs inductive coupling for its power—a process by which electric current, flowing through a copper wire, creates an electromagnetic field that wirelessly flows to another conductor located about a half inch away. That second conductor, in this case, is connected to the rechargeable battery powering the shelf technology (consisting of a weight sensor, a microprocessor and an LCD screen). This wireless connection not only enables the battery to be recharged, but is also used for bi-directional data transmission, so that a label's unique identifier or other information—such as a shelf being perceived as empty, based on weight sensor readings—can also be transferred between the back-end software and the shelf unit.

The inductive coupling technology has addressed several problems that burdened the electronic shelf industry in the past, says John White, the CEO of both Compass Marketing and Tagnetics. For one thing, he notes, it eliminates the need for battery replacement. Most electronic shelves on the market require that batteries be replaced—a process that can be both expensive and time-consuming at any store large enough to have hundreds or thousands of the labels installed on shelves. In addition, he says, traditional electronic shelves have not operated well in environments such as in freezers or refrigerators, because the labels cannot transmit data through a glass door well. The use of inductive coupling, White explains, overcomes this problem. In fact, he adds, in the case of freezers or refrigerators, the Powershelf technology can be connected to temperature sensors, and then transmit temperature data to a back-end server via the inductive coupling connection, which can pass through glass doors without a problem.

The Powershelf consists of the LCD screens or electronic paper displays mounted on a shelf rail—a strip of plastic that runs along the front edge of a retailer's display shelves. Running through that rail is the copper wire that transmits data and power to the labels. The electromagnetic field created by the copper wire is used to charge each beacon's battery.

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