Pimp My Food Truck: RFID-Enabling the 21st Century Chuckwagon

Posted by Ken Lynch on Fri, Jun 28, 2013 @ 02:51 PM

Tags: RFID, Supply Chain, Food & Beverage, Inventory Management, Vehicle Tracking, Point of Sale

foodtruckIf you work or live in an urban area, you’ve most likely seen the trendy food trucks parked at busy intersections, parks and plazas, serving up cupcakes, lobster rolls and everything in between. (For those who’ve never partaken, here’s a sneak peek video into how they operate)

Mobile munching, though almost unrecognizable from the days of “chuckwagons,” has come back in full force for foodies all across America who enjoy the convenience of curb-side cuisine.   In fact, 91% of those familiar with mobile food trucks say that the trend is here to stay (see Infographic).  We see this every day outside our office in Kendall Square, with several food trucks setting up shop.  And just a couple of weeks ago Kendall Square hosted the Food Truck Festival of New England.   The trend has gotten so hot that Kickstarter – the social funding service – has gotten behind it.   Mei Mei, a Boston-based food truck business recently raised $35,000 on the e-fundraising site to finance turning their business into a brick and mortar restaurant.

Annual revenue from food trucks was $1.2 billion dollars in 2009 and there has been significant growth since, most of which could be attributed to customer loyalty. Locals are often lured in to trying food trucks for a few simple reasons 1) convenience 2) community 3) cuisine and 4) competition. Could food truck operators increase customer loyalty by implementing RFID?

1) Convenience: Part of the appeal in mobile dining is the convenience that it offers. Whether it’s across from the office or parked near a popular tourist attraction, a food truck provides a quick and easy meal on the go. In addition to geographic convenience, food trucks also offer a financial convenience with mobile payment options. While it may not be main stream yet, types of RFID technologies can allow for easy, on-the-go payment for patrons who may not have cash handy. Mobile-payment is not only convenient for the consumer, but also allows the business owner to track spending trends and implement a rewards program for their most loyal customers. As “the internet of things” continues to grow and expand, especially into the retail environment, the food truck industry is no exception. The Point-of-sale iPads that have been installed in trucks are streamlining payment, consolidating physical equipment and supporting franchises that also operate out of brick and mortar shops.

2) Community:  One unique aspect about food trucks is the sense of community they create. Aside from the physical communities that support these small business owners, the virtual communities online provide valuable promotion as well. Food truck owners rely heavily on word of mouth to grow their business. Similar to Cadbury and dwinQ’s social media deployment at the Olympics, RFID technology could also allow patrons to check-in to the specific food truck and notify friends and social media followers of their location, ultimately acting as a virtual word of mouth.   

3) Cuisine: It wouldn’t be a food truck without the food! The culinary treats that come from these mobile kitchens are just as delicious as their brick and mortar counterparts.  But one difference is they require a different kind of logistical planning. Fresh ingredients, prepared daily are a key part in the operational aspect of a food truck. Much of their product has to be prepared in advance in a physical location and then loaded into the truck every day.  With space at such a premium, ensuring that the truck is equipped with just the right inventory to last the day is crucial in ensuring profits in a business with notoriously arbitrary and often razor thin margins.  Managing inventory closely is another opportunity where RFID technology can make a big impact in food quality and customer satisfaction.   

4) Competition: The restaurant business is tough and highly competitive, and it’s no different with food trucks.   The cooking reality TV competitions and many cook-off competitions that happen around the country draw in hundreds of thousands of viewers and patrons respectively.  It’s the same in the food truck business. Every spring, Boston’s annual Food Truck Throwdown brings various vendors together to compete for coveted crowning as the best. Not a Beantown local? According to The Daily Meal, these trucks beat out thousands of others to be crowned the Top Ten Food Trucks in America

Ultimately, food trucks have changed the l landscape of dining options all over the country and continue to draw crowds. While the technology that drives the businesses may be “behind the scenes,” it surely plays a role in what makes them a success. From social media to location services, there are opportunities for food trucks to tap into RFID as a resource to grow and sustain their business.

The question is, who is going to be the first to pimp their food truck with these high-tech solutions?

 

Photo credit: David Stewart/Boston.com

RFID, Big Data and Retail

Posted by Ken Lynch on Wed, Jan 11, 2012 @ 10:44 AM

Tags: RFID, Smart Displays, Retail, Big Data, Inventory Management, Point of Sale

RFID in RetailThe holiday retail sales season by most accounts was characterized as volatile – with huge surges at the start and end of the season, and big dips in the middle. That’s obviously good and bad for retailers. How to smooth out the peaks and valleys surely will be discussed at the National Retail Federation’s “Big Show” this month.

This also gives us an opportunity to illustrate how an industry can think differently about RFID to help address this problem. As we asserted in our 2012 prediction that data and apps will rule RFID for the next 10 years, when companies hear the term “RFID”, they shouldn’t be thinking about readers and tags, but rather about processes. Here’s how it can be done within retail.

Real-time Data, Real-time Decisions

The age-old challenge in retail is how to maximize razor-thin margins. The newer challenge is sustaining increased sales in brick-and-mortar stores. Technology is essential, but it has more of an advantage for online retail.

A key to optimizing sales and margins is making near real-time decisions about merchandising, assortments and promotions. It’s easier to do this on the web because of data available from such things as what items people are clicking on, search queries, etc. Retailers can change what gets promoted on the fly with this information.

But how can this happen in physical stores? Point-of-sales systems provide data as to what people buy in the store. This has been where innovations in terms of data warehousing and analytics have come. There’s a lot of consumer behavior that takes place before the check-out though, and data from this activity can help make even faster decisions about assortment and promotions on the floor.

There are project-level RFID implementations in retail that we have highlighted here that can be broadened to make a process-level impact. For example, last month we wrote about how a department store in Japan is the first to use RFID-based interactive hangers that trigger a display of a model wearing a garment that a customer selects off a rack. The idea is to make the item more appealing at the point of interest.

Those hangers could do a lot more for a retailer, however. The mere fact that someone picked the item off the rack shows an initial level of interest, which can be captured as a new set of data; like clicking on an item online. If a person takes it to the fitting room to try it on, where there is another RFID reader, the system can capture this as additional data related to the level of interest in an item. If the item is left in the fitting room, the retailer can know this immediately, as well as if the item is taken from the fitting room to the check-out counter.

This is as valuable as the data that can be mined from web site clicks and searches and allow in-store managers to change assortments and displays much more quickly than before.

Processes and Solutions

When we say that we should reshape the way we think about RFID, we mean that we should not fixate on the need to prove the technology, but rather think about ALL of the processes that can be improved with the availability of RFID data.  As the example above is intended to illustrate, retailers should think about how they can get data about shoppers’ behavior from the moment they walk in a store and the kind of analysis they can do to optimize processes accordingly.

Specific processes can be gleaned with the help of McKinsey’s recent Big Data report, which looks at retail as one of the industries where more value can be created from new data sources like RFID systems. These include in-store behavior analysis, customer micro-segmentation, assortment optimization and placement and design optimization.

Beyond the process identification, retailers can benefit from the availability of full RFID solutions that help them incorporate data generated from RFID systems with the data warehousing, analytics and mostly home-grown software applications used to manage operations.

We’ll continue our series of posts about how other industries can think about leveraging RFID data by looking more closely on healthcare and the in-transit markets. In the meantime, what are some other ways retailers can use RFID to enhance existing processes?

Automating Point-of-Sale Processes with RFID

Posted by Ken Lynch on Wed, Sep 29, 2010 @ 12:09 PM

Tags: RFID, Retail, Smart Shelves, Point of Sale

An End to the Supermarket Checkout Line?

Those of us who have young children know how painful it can be waiting in line at the supermarket. Not only are we dealing with a child who has reached the end of his rope from being told “please don’t crash the cart,” “put that cereal back,” and “don’t run down the aisles,” but at the checkout line it’s a whole new level of combat. Now you have to outsmart the marketing folks who have mastered Point-of-Purchase strategy by getting you to buy candy, gum and assorted trinkets (and the National Enquirer for yourself) to keep you and the kids happy while you’re waiting in line.

MediaCartUsing shopping carts as a "vehicle" for an RFID-enabled solution is not new. By leveraging ThingMagic’s embedded RFID technology Media Cart Holdings, Inc. developed a proof of concept designed to increase store sales and customer loyalty and enable marketers to obtain anonymous, point of sale consumer behavior data to improve advertising effectiveness.

But the shopping experience can get even better. The idea of putting grocery items in a shopping cart and walking out the door without going through a check-out line was reported by USA Today in 2001 and it’s actually not that far-fetched.

The bar codes that already exist on each product could be replaced with printable RFID tags like those developed by researchers from the Sunchon National University, South Korea in collaboration with Rice University in Houston, Texas.  The result of their joint project is an inexpensive, printable transmitter that could be embedded in packaging. Printable RFID tags are practical because they're passive. Meaning the tags only transmit data when they’re activated by radio waves from an RFID reader. In that instant, they return the information contained in the tag.

With RFID customers fill their carts as usual, but instead of going to find an open cashier, they walk past an RFID reader on their way out the door. The reader reads all of items in the cart in seconds and transacts the purchase against a pre-selected account. There will most likely be other options available too, like signing for your purchases at a kiosk once your total is displayed. Combining this point-of-sale data with data gathered from RFID readers at product shelf locations, retailers could also record the changes to the store's inventory and automatically submit replenishment orders to their suppliers.

Researchers admit there are some hurdles to widespread, retail adoption. The printable tags must be no larger than the size of current bar codes and the read range must increase. With the progress made to date in the read range of passive UHF RFIDS tags, as noted in our blog that introduced this campaign, this idea maybe a reality very soon.

What then? What happens to Point-of-Purchase displays? Where will the tabloid magazines go? Let us know your thoughts of what the supermarket of the future might look like by leaving a comment here. 

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