Can We Eliminate Traditional Checkout Counters

Imagine if you can walk into your favorite supermarket or grocery store and load your shopping cart with supplies for a whole month, without worrying about long checkout lines.  Imagine going to the store, filling up your cart and walking right out the door…and not being held for stealing! Enjoying a smoother and faster experience at a retail store can soon be possible when the ubiquitous Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code is replaced by smart labels called radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. RFID tags are intelligent bar codes that can talk to a networked system to track every product that you put in your shopping cart.

No longer will you have to wait as someone bills each item in your cart one at a time. RFID tags combined with near-field communication (NFC) technology will communicate with an electronic reader that will detect every item in the cart and check out each item almost instantly. The RFID reader will be connected to a large network that will send information on your products to the retailer and product manufacturers, while the amount of the bill will be communicated to your bank for payment. This will eliminate checkout counters as we know them, and shoppers could sail through a store without waiting in queues. RFID and NFC will also come in handy at eliminating long lines at toll-booths, where you can pay the toll without stopping.

RFID is a generic term that is used to describe a system that transmits the identity (in the form of a unique serial number) of an object or person wirelessly, using radio waves. It's grouped under the broad category of automatic identification technologies. RFID technology does not require contact or line of sight for communication. RFID data can be read through the human body, clothing and non-metallic materials. The purpose of an RFID system is to enable data to be transmitted by a portable device, called a tag, which is read by an RFID reader and processed according to the needs of a particular application. The data transmitted by the tag may provide identification or location information, or specifics about the product tagged, such as price, color, date of purchase, etc.

RFID technology has been used in closed loop supply chains or to automate parts of the supply chain within a supplier’s control for several years now. It will soon be accepted and implemented as a convenient payment mechanism as well. As RFID technology evolves and becomes less expensive and more robust, it's likely that companies and RFID vendors will develop many new applications to solve common and unique business problems.

NFC is a short range wireless RFID technology that makes use of interacting electromagnetic radio fields instead of the typical direct radio transmissions used by technologies such as Bluetooth. It is meant for applications where a physical touch is required in order to maintain security. NFC is planned for use in mobile phones for contactless payment and other transactions.  Imagine using your mobile phone to make instant payments by simply ‘swiping’ it against a reader, or to interact with posters, magazines, and even with products while at the store, and with such interaction initiating a request or search for related information in real-time. But NFC is still a young technology, though NFC-enabled handsets are being introduced into the market.

While RFID and NFC are the rage for contactless transactions in the future, technology providers are still struggling with the many problems related to this revolutionary technology:

  • Absence of global standards that determine implementation of RFID and NFC
  • Some RFID devices are not designed for leaving their network (as in the case of RFID tags used for inventory control within a company)
  • RFID systems can be easily disrupted as they rely on the electromagnetic spectrum to communicate
  • RFID collision can occur when the signals from two or more readers overlap and the tag is unable to respond to simultaneous queries
  • Security, privacy and ethics problems related to RFID are yet to be worked out. RFID tags can’t tell the difference between one reader and the other, and the tags are difficult for consumers to remove. This can result in data theft especially when using it for payment.
  • RFID tags can be easily read without the customer’s knowledge by anyone who has ad RFID tag reader (most of which are very portable)

Despite all technical challenges, RFID and NFC have several advantages. Consumers could benefit from shorter lines at checkout counters, in hospitals, libraries, and petrol stations because RFID fast-tracks them to the front of the queue. They can also benefit from lower prices because of the efficiencies RFID brings to the supply chain.

RFID has other consumer applications such as the recovery of lost or stolen items that can be traced using a reader, provided of course they have been tagged previously. Toy companies are embedding RFID tags in toys to make them interactive. RFID could be used to create smart products that interact with smart appliances, such as using RFID readers for tagged items in the kitchen and deciding what can be cooked with what’s available. And RFID should enable consumers to get more information about the products they want to purchase, such as when the items were made, where, whether they are under warrantee and so on.


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