The IoT Could Make Retailers' Dreams About RFID Come True

A startup called Stuffstr shows how consumers, with the help of a smartphone app, could be benefiting from brands embedding RFID tags into their products.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jun 21, 2016

Back in the mid-aughts, when radio frequency identification was hovering around the apex of the hype curve, the technology's pundits often spoke of a near future in which we'd breeze through grocery store check-out lanes as RFID readers collect the stock-keeping unit (SKU) of every item in our carts. Alas, that never happened. It may never happen, in fact. But Seattle-based startup Stuffstr hopes that item-level RFID tagging will make its way into non-consumable products, and has launched a new smartphone-based platform that aims to help consumers leverage those tags to extend those products' value and improve their lifecycle management.

John Atcheson, Stuffstr's CEO and co-founder, told me that someday, users of the Stuffstr app—which will soon launch on the iOS platform—will be able to simply use their cell phones to scan their closets, run an inventory check on their belongings and then tick off any items they would like to resell or give away. Stuffstr would then arrange for those items to be picked up or resold. The brands that produced those goods may also be made aware of their destinations, based on RFID tracking.

First, let me note that Atcheson knows this scenario is not currently possible. For one thing, iPhones are incapable of reading RFID tags, and while many Android phones can do so, they can read only Near Field Communication (NFC) high-frequency (HF) tags, not the ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags predominantly used for tracking consumer items. But he is hopeful that this will change—either because smartphone manufacturers will build UHF readers into their phones, or because other companies will begin selling adapters capable of converting a smartphone into an RFID reader, such as Microelectronics Technology Inc.'s Mini Me (RU-827), which plugs into an Android phone's micro-USB port and retails for $199 on Amazon—about $150 more than consumers would likely pay for it. (Zebra Technologies, ATID and Trimble do sell RFID readers that also function as smartphones, but they are not designed for consumers and are very expensive.)

At the other end of the equation, of course, is the absence of RFID tags embedded in the products consumers buy. I queried my colleagues over at RFID Journal about which products currently carry RFID tags, and learned that European clothing brand Gerry Weber integrates item-level tags into its product-care labels… and, as far as clothing goes, that's about it. Vivienne Westwood, a U.K. high-end designer, is working with a company called TexTrace to integrate RFID tags into clothing as well, in order to fight counterfeiting. In addition, Italian leather goods manufacturer Braccialini has embedded UHF tags in its products, primarily to determine whether unauthorized retailers are selling its goods, and to investigate the history of such diversions.

There are plenty of reasons, ranging from costs to privacy issues, that integrated item-level tagging (meaning a tag is embedded into a product rather than attached to its hangtag or packaging) has not yet taken off. But there are also plenty of reasons why all sorts of stakeholders in the consumer supply chain—ranging from textile mills to electronics companies to brands to retailers (as well as resellers, like eBay or Goodwill Industries), to consumers to recyclers to waste-haulers—should care that being able to track products from the cradle to the grave (or, preferably, from the cradle back to the cradle) is so difficult. As Lauren Roman detailed in this Expert View article, RFID, as well as the use of Internet of Things technology to allow consumers to engage with the supply chain via smartphone apps that connect to cloud-based tracking platforms, can play a vital role in enabling the circular economy. In such an economy, the reuse of resources and full lifecycle management are major design tenets of the supply chain, not feel-good exercises for a company's sustainability department.

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