L.L. Bean RFID Trial Ties Products Being Touched With Digital Displays

Approaching a product display table at her local L.L. Bean store, a consumer picks up a pair of boots that she thinks might work with a just-purchased outfit. Those same boots are equipped with a passive RFID tag, which detects the specific product being picked up, calculates the speed of its ascent and concludes that a customer is interested. A nearby digital display then starts running a video ad for those boots.

This L.L. Bean trial, which started in January, is trying to see whether highly targeted video—keyed into specific consumer actions—will push sales beyond traditional digital ads. The trial raises some interesting marketing issues, such as whether today's younger consumers (who have been inundated with fast-paced background videos since birth) will be influenced by these videos. Heck, will they even notice? This is an especially critical point, given that many of these videos are without sound.

But the trial poses even more intriguing IT issues. For example, the trial is using passive RFID tags. Not that long ago, more-expensive active tags would have been needed to deliver the type of information these passive tags deliver. Passive used to only communicate "I'm over here." But the technology used in the L.L. Bean trial is using software to try and determine intent, said Frederick Bleckmann of Pittsfield ID Technologies, which is providing much of the technology for this trial.

The cost of the system varies with volume and the particulars of the ordered equipment, Bleckmann said. But an entry-level "down-and-dirty" system would cost about $8,000 and include a 24-inch touchscreen display and "a couple of hundred passive tags."

What happens when multiple customers visit the same table and select different products? The screen splits and shows one large video—typically with sound—and a few smaller videos.

It's a first-come-first-ad-served situation, with the first video shown in the large center window and the second, third and fourth videos given the smaller slots. The smaller slots have no audio. When the first video is over, the other videos rotate into the large space. Will customers wait for their video to be center-screen? Will they notice the videos at all?

Another chain reported to be about to deploy a similar system is an electronics chain. It's easy to envision electronics equipment demos and how-to videos being effective sales tools, but how useful is a silent boot video likely to be? The questions consumers are likely to have about such items—fit, feel, weight, water-proof issues, etc.—are unlikely to be effectively addressed in a video, even with sound.

Still, the ability to tie digital displays into consumer actions has huge potential. Beyond the displays, the product interest data capture potential is strong. Just like tracking whether a mobile phone scans particular product barcodes, this capability can tell a retailer which products are considered by a consumer and for how long.

That duration is critical. Was the product picked up and immediately put back? Was it held and examined for 30 seconds? Four minutes? If an item is being picked up an awful lot and put back down, is the price killing sales? Perhaps the weight or the texture? It would signal that the look of the product is making it attractive but that something detectable within two to three seconds is killing the sale. Pretty valuable stuff.

The units in the L.L. Bean trial are powered by power-over-Ethernet and promise a read range of from four to 15 feet, a Pittsfield ID Technologies marketing document said.