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Features - Technology

Technology developments are making it easier than ever to track inventory, store customer data and make sales.

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July 17, 2019

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Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

What it is: RFID uses radio frequencies to take inventory tracking to new levels of ease and accuracy. RFID tags, applied with the same types of tags you use now, store product information electronically. With RFID readers, you can scan the tags without ever seeing them.

Why it matters: Imagine scanning carts with a single pass or knowing up-to-date inventory without counting. With RFID tags and readers, you could accurately track product flow from receiving to storage to retail and out the door, in real time. We’re not there quite yet, but it’s getting closer.

Tom Fernandez, Michigan State University horticulture professor, oversees extensive RFID research, including a 2019 Horticultural Research Institute project. Fernandez has tested RFID in both retail and nursery and greenhouse production with different tag types, product categories and shopping cart densities.

To date, slip-on keyhole tags have yielded the best RFID results, with accuracy in retail and production settings comparable to human crews. One significant limitation has been that moisture and metal impede RFID signals. However, tags smeared with dirt scan just fine.

For stake-style and adhesive tags nestled near moist media, Fernandez believes redesigning RFID placement on tags will improve results. In addition, a major mainstream label producer is collaborating on upcoming research to develop workable RFID tags for the horticulture industry.

RFID readers and tags help keep accurate inventory across the supply chain.
Photo courtesy of Tom Fernandez

Artificial intelligence and intelligence automation

What they are: Artificial intelligence (AI) is the capability of machines to simulate human intelligence and — through data — learn, understand, reason and adapt. Intelligent automation (IA) goes a step further as AI-powered machines automatically take appropriate action as a result of that reasoning process.

Why they matter: AI is everywhere, from your Weather Channel app to the product suggestions on your favorite shopping site to the virtual assistant on your phone or in your home. Ask Google Assistant if she’s AI and she’ll tell you that it’s true. AI-powered experiences have become the norm.

At January’s NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show, the National Retail Federation and IBM shared findings from a joint study: “The coming AI revolution in retail and consumer products.” Among the retail participants, 29% currently use intelligent automation for in-store services and 85% plan to use IA for supply chain planning and demand forecasting within the next three years.

Envision automatic adjustments of orders or purchasing plans based on real-time buying behavior. Chris Wong, vice president of strategy, offerings and alliances for IBM’s Global Consumer Industry, says artificial intelligence isn’t reserved for large businesses with in-house IT departments. “For smaller retailers, these capabilities will surface in things they don’t own, but subscribe to,” he says.

Cloud-based e-commerce solutions — what you may call “online” services — can use AI to personalize your customers’ shopping experiences. Cloud-based labor scheduling tools can help improve your scheduling decisions with the help of AI.

“The cloud democratizes artificial intelligence without you having to build it,” Wong says. “If you’re a relatively small business but you’re a pretty leading-edge thinker, you can probably already consume those capabilities just by subscription.”

Artifical intelligence is powering many of the experiences and conveniences modern consumers have come to expect.
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Blockchain technology

What it is: Blockchain is a data-sharing technology that stores time-stamped transactions in a digital ledger shared by all parties involved. Each new transaction forms a block of the chain, which can never be revised or deleted. The result is an immutable record of every transaction in the chain.

Why it matters: Blockchain is often linked with bitcoin transactions, but these ledgers record non-financial records too. As consumers demand greater transparency about product origins and handling, blockchain provides a way to track products and confirm their provenance.

Blockchain use is growing among retailers and agribusinesses. After last fall’s romaine-related E. coli outbreak, Walmart started requiring blockchain from leafy greens producers, lowering the retailer’s tracking time from seven days to 2.2 seconds.

Some commercial cannabis producers are piloting blockchain programs to document cultivar origins and pesticide-free production. Several European floriculturists are trialing blockchain as well.

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In a recent article for Hort Journal Australia, horticulturist and marketing technologist David Thompson, web and memberships manager for the Australian Institute of Horticulture, overviewed blockchain’s potential for establishing transparent, fixed records of plant heritage, propagation and production practices, and plant breeders’ rights.

Thompson says that potential carries over to end retailers: “Garden center retailers have a responsibility as well as an opportunity to be able to ensure that what they are selling is true to type, adheres to plant breeders’ rights and is safe and free from pests that may otherwise cause damage to their customers … Blockchain’s role in demonstrating the validity of every link in a supply chain could be another tool that clearly records and validates the claims being made by each member in the supply chain.”

He also suggests that there’s marketing potential when customers can scan a plant’s product code, see its journey from seed to retail and confirm how it was produced.

Whether it’s blockchain or virtual reality, follow the advice of Wong and his IBM associates: Think big, start small and rethink the way you do business in the digital age.

The author is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to GIE Media publications. You can reach her at jolene@lovesgarden.com