Ice Cream Shop Uses RFID To Broadcast Latest Inventory

At Izzy's Ice Cream Café in Saint Paul, Minn., a teenage scooper has just dished up the last of the strawberry cheesecake ice cream. When she pulls out the RFID-tagged strawberry label and replaces it with one for lemon custard, a colored dot of light on the wall announces the change to all within viewing distance. Within three minutes, the Web site is identically updated, deleting strawberry and welcoming lemon.

While the co-owner of this family-owned scoop shop said he likes the RFID technology, he's fonder of the push nature of his current flavor updater--where he tells his customers what he has--rather than the pull nature of a system in which his customers tell him what they want.

Several years ago, we profiled the then-CIO of ice-cream chain Cold Stone Creamery, who spoke of where the industry might go. She envisioned customers swiping their CRM cards as they get in line, thereby allowing scoopers to learn that the line includes 22 loyal customers who always order mango-peach ice cream. This knowledge allows scoopers time to get a new bucket from the back before those customers get to the head of the line.

Today, such plans would almost certainly factor in mobile, which would allow customers to place their orders while at the end of the line and, in turn, to make more intelligent decisions. Mobile would also allow more orderly and faster service.

But Izzy's co-owner Jeff Sommers wants none of that. He wants customers coming into his shop because they trust his taste and want to taste his latest concoctions and other new offerings.

The people who come to Izzy's only in search of one particular favorite flavor—he dubs them "specialized customers"—will either find the inventory there or they can leave, to return another day. If they like that flavor so much, Sommers concludes, they'll be back.

Beyond the wall and the Web site updates, those RFID-powered ice cream flavor labels also blast the updates to Sommers' Twitter feed, an E-mail list and a Facebook page. The site also allows customer customization, so they can sequence their flavors in various rows and spot their favorites more quickly.

Sommers' attitude is refreshing. Because mobile apps allow for greater customer feedback and involvement, it sometimes takes an executive at a smaller or family-owned business to push back and say, "Thanks, but no thanks. I know my business better than my customers do, which is why they pay me. If I start delivering what they are seeking, it may initially feel like customer service but it actually devaluing my service and expertise. It's like playing the lowest cost game: No one can win that game, at least not for very long."

Using technology to hear from customers is great. But allowing those customers—through that technology—to take over the business may not be in either side's long-term interests. Just a thought in this CRM- and mobile-crazed moment.