Embedded systems solutions in commerce

The growing development of electrical engineering, and embedded systems in particular, allows for the progressive implementation of various innovative solutions for stores, wholesalers, and many other places where commerce is a core activity. Embedded systems are generating automation, as well as the implementation of various kinds of intelligent solutions to facilitate the achievement of goals. It can be suspected that in the future, most of the stores will be run in an automated way, so that the human factor is only a supervisory function over the whole process. The use of this type of solutions results in significant cost savings and prevents many organizational problems within companies, as well as increases sales efficiency. In addition, the development of embedded systems provides new analytical tools, which in turn allow the operation of many sites, but the potential of most of such solutions has not been and will not be fully exploited for a long time. In this article, examples of embedded systems solutions will be analyzed and the functionality of digital labels in relation to printed ones will be compared.

Examples of embedded system devices

Commerce has been using the functionality provided by embedded devices for many years. The best known and most common example are bar-code scanners, which are installed in stores to allow the verification of product prices. The functionality of such a scanner comes down only to the verification of the compliance of the product price with the label attached to it.

An example of such a device can be Forcom’s F2006 model: https://www.forcom.com.pl/store-hardware/price-checkers/, which was quite commonly installed in the TESCO stores chain. Stores, however, began to go further in the search for solutions that could improve work and have the opportunity to meet the growing demands of cashiers — dictated by the fact that their salaries are not very satisfying. Therefore, Carrefour decided to develop a cart that could scan the product that was put into it and check its actual presence thanks to an installed scale. This solution and several others like it were tested in designated store departments.

The need to meet customers’ expectations is extremely high nowadays, as the fast-paced lifestyle and task-oriented nature of day-to-day activities means that people expect new solutions to reduce delivery times. Waiting in long lines at cash registers operated by a cashier has become frustrating and pointless. Mobile billing solutions save time for the customer, but also significantly reduce costs associated with maintaining a large number of employees. Additionally, devices with embedded systems can be combined with artificial intelligence technology. This is the case with the SmartCart. Nothing stands in the way of combining the capabilities of such intelligent carts with the function of navigating the customer through the store. The user of such a cart could, for example, search for a product on the device’s monitor, and the cart would navigate him through the store’s alleys directly to the shelf where the product is located. Finalizing the shopping would be as simple as paying with a payment card and reloading the items.

Self-service cash registers, although already used in most chain stores, unfortunately do not solve the customers’ problem — unlike solutions similar to the mentioned SmartCart. The customer still has to wait in line to get to the self-service cash register, he still has to do a lot of things to complete the shopping (so he actually has to do the same work as the cashier at a standard cash register). In the case of self-service registers, the only advantage is that the company saves on salaries for employees, while the disadvantage is the constant supervision of a technical employee.

Self-service cash registers

The development of artificial intelligence and video monitoring makes it possible to dispense with store security personnel who used to have to pick up irregularities in monitoring cameras on their own. Much more effective and carrying additional capabilities is the use of monitoring using artificial intelligence: https://www.v7labs.com/blog/ai-in-retail. Thanks to it, the store can operate practically quite independently. Devices allowing to determine the position of the customer in the store, in connection with the monitoring allows to determine precisely what product has been taken or put away by a particular person. So it gives the opportunity to dispense with cash registers, carts and other indirect elements in the path of purchase. Using a smartphone or other device taken at the entrance, the customer can make shopping purchases by placing them directly in the bag. A weight scale installed in the merchandise shelf can also be used as a surveillance system to check the product is being taken off the shelf. An example of an autonomous store using such a solution is Amazon Go: https://www.forbes.com/sites/andriacheng/2019/01/13/why-amazon-go-may-soon-change-the-way-we-want-to-shop/?sh=61c504656709. With the rapid development of robotics today, the problem of restocking will be solved by robots that, upon receiving information from the assortment monitoring system, will restock the missing product directly from the warehouse. In addition, they will store the scanned date of the supplemented products and automatically remove them from the shelf in case of expiry of the useful date. You can read more about this type of robots here: https://www.theverge.com/2018/5/8/17331250/automated-warehouses-jobs-ocado-andover-amazon and here https://www.fortna.com/en_gb/insights-resources/seven-types-of-warehouse-robots-considerations-for-leveraging-robots-in-the-dc/.

Warehouse robots

Persistently unsolved problems with which store owners struggle in the context of employing people to work are primarily those related to ensuring proper working conditions, i.e. hourly rate, available vacation days or possibility of long-term sick leave. Embedded systems may of course require servicing, but such activities can be extremely short — they can be reduced even to a few minutes of inactivity of the devices. Another advantage of using the devices is the ability to work even 24 hours a day, which in the case of human work has to be spread over at least 2–3 people. The implementation of embedded systems in the retail industry not only makes it easier for the customer to buy, but also deprives store owners of numerous troubles associated with staffing problems. Digital devices operate at virtually constant capacity-unlike human workers, whose efficiency consists of many factors. In addition, the use of old-fashioned price marking or printed shelf tags seems to be an unjustified, inefficient and expensive approach still widely used by retailers.

Digital labels vs. printed labels

When compared to printed labels, digital versions are definitely more practical as they are bought with many years of use in mind. Moreover, it can be said that they are basically universal and have a variety of additional functionalities. You can read more about them, for example, here: https://ixtenso.com/technology/bygg-ole-in-sweden-streamlines-stores-with-electronic-shelf-labels.html. In fact, digital labels can serve as a customer lure, improve store operations with the potential for numerous integrations between systems, and extend functionality with elements of artificial intelligence. An extremely useful solution to help with product selection can be the use of an intelligent customer advisor system that can suggest a specific choice option during a conversation with the customer. Such and similar solutions are revolutionizing the trade industry and slowly replacing the traditional investors’ approach. New societal demands and technology opportunities are driving the need for innovation to stay in business. Autonomous store solutions are already in practice and are the undisputed future of the retail industry. You can read about specific innovations in retail here: https://www.cbinsights.com/research/cashierless-retail-technologies-companies-trends/.

Electronic shelf label

Disadvantages of printed labels

1. Cost of printing a single label

- price of black ink for A4 for average print is 0.0325 PLN

- the price of laser printing of A4 for an average form is 0.018 PLN

- the cheapest way to buy a single sheet of A4 is 0.018 PLN

- the cost of energy/electricity for printing is about PLN 0.005

- the costs of operating the printer are not clear to estimate

Case study

The total cost of an average A4 text print in black is PLN 0.07 if we consider standard text. Labels often have bold and large font texts/numbers. In addition, an average of 10 labels fit on a single A4 page.

In order to print them as cheaply as possible, it would be necessary to print 10 different labels at the same time each time. However, as you know, the prices of products change at any given time so you often print 2–3 labels at the same time, which significantly increases the cost of printing a single label. Assuming that we print 10 labels at one time and we average the cost of printing A4 taking into account a small exploitation factor of the equipment, then at 10 gr per A4 page we get the cost of printing a single label on the level of 1gr (assuming optimal printing). In the case of products that often change their price during the year, the amount can reach a few PLN for a single product label — especially in the case of promotions.

Ultimately — the real cost of printing a single label is higher than 1gr, but assuming the most optimal forms of printing it can be averaged to 1gr per label.

2. Human resources during label price change

Case study

In order to change a printed label, someone must simply design the label and then hand it over to the person who will do the printing. Once it is printed, it needs to be cut and the finished form needs to go to the right place to change the labels.

3. Susceptibility to human mistake

Case study

In the case of many employee’s duties, an error during label swapping, during the actual printing or even when creating a label design is not uncommon. In fact, every day as we walk through the stores we can meet various mishaps on price labels. In addition, if the price is incorrectly written, the seller is obliged to sell the item according to the label.

4. Recycling of old labels

Case study

Ecological laws are being enforced more and more often when it comes to entrepreneurs’ activities and, consequently, a great emphasis is being put on social engagement in environmental protection. With every price change, a new label is printed and the previous one is recycled. Paper is made from trees and therefore contributes to the cutting down of trees. Recycled material can of course be used, but it is not clear how many businesses actually use it.

5. Damaging label caps

Case study

Protective covers are most often made of plastic. During the exploitation, by constantly changing the labels, they become damaged and quickly worn out — they break, crack and in the run of time they become faded or worn out limiting the legibility of the label. Such cracked plastic covers can, of course, pose some danger to store employees and customers.

Advantages of digital labels

1. Savings

Case study

Digital labels should serve for a longer period of time counted in years, so once purchased, a label will fulfill its role long enough. In addition, the employee who has been replacing labels so far will be able to take care of other tasks at work.

2. Reducing the possibility of mistake

Case study

An employee making a price correction on a digital label has the ability to remotely change the price on the label and in the sales system. This eliminates the possibility of inconsistent prices at the store cash register and on the label under the product. The systems can be integrated with each other and it would reduce the time for estimators and price takers to make changes. Also, for chain stores, there is the possibility that the change could be made for one or more other stores at one time.

3. Label visibility

Case study

Digital displays allow to present various types of graphics, also with the possibility of changing colors, as well as simple animations. It allows to catch the customer’s attention and make him interested in e.g. a promotion or simply an attractive product price. Moreover, the customer may be attracted by e.g. the country of origin of the product or some other interesting information.

4. Lack of label is not an issue here

Case study

The label system can easily detect information about non-functioning labels and send it as a failure to the supervisory system with information. It can send, for example, a notification in what section the label does not respond, what product it covers and in what store, etc. This allows for immediate removal of the failure and re-exposure of the price, which in the case of printed labels, when, for example, an ill-mannered customer pulls out the label is difficult to find, and basically comes down to the irritated customer paying attention because of the lack of information about the price of the product.

5. Possibility of archiving labels in the system

Case study

In case of store analyses, the information about periods and prices provided for the designated products is often useful. This can be analyzed in various ways. The labelling management system can archive and keep statistics on the prices of given products.

6. Artificial intelligence systems using labels

Case study

For digital labels, for example, detection sensors could be used to analyze the customer’s interest in, for example, a promotion, price or information shown on the label. This would allow to adjust the label display strategy and develop the most saleable model and determine effective label presentation methods.

7. Digital label system and voice notification

Case study

Nothing stands in the way of the system being integrated with the voice notification system and informing the customers of such a change in price or promotion by voice.

8. Planning a price change

Case study

Digital labels give the possibility of remote price change and thus also programmatic management of such change. Thanks to this, a store developing a strategy can plan a price change for a specific date and time. Such a solution could work perfectly well during temporary price promotions for products.

Digital labels are therefore a powerful tool in the hands of store owners. They can contribute to an increase in sales and customer interest in the product. They improve the work of store managers and other employees. They allow the elimination of human mistake by reducing the number of people performing one task, such as changing the price. Moreover, they can contribute to environmental protection and bring savings. They provide opportunities to use intelligent solutions that are increasingly being implemented in trade, which is particularly noticeable in the e-commerce industry.

Weighing on shelves

1. Possibility of automatic calculation

Case study

A shelf equipped with a digital weight could automatically charge a product to a customer’s digital cart. For example, if a customer pulls a product off the shelf and their cart is near the shelf, the product could be digitally registered in the cart. In a fully automated store, the activities of the store assistant or self-service checkout would be reduced to verifying the correctness and collecting payment for the shopping.

You can read more about smart shelves here: https://www.perchinteractive.com/retail-marketing-blog/smart-shelves.

2. Storage capacities

Case study

Thanks to the possibility of detection, the warehouse could receive information about the need to supplement the assortment and the current number of products on the counter/shelf.

3. Selling products by weight

Case study

A customer carrying e.g. fruit on the weighing machine would not have to re-weigh it. He would receive information about the currently selected weight of the products via a short timer. He could precisely take as much products as he needs and at the same time receive information on how much he will pay.

4. Theft detection

Case study

Digital scales with intelligent monitoring system would allow to quickly track and register product theft.

Digital scales bring a number of possibilities for sales automation, in connection with the systems they give new analytical options and introduce interesting possibilities of anti-theft surveillance. You can read about intelligent monitoring systems here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1155/2015/378694.

In conclusion, it is worth noting the range of functionalities of embedded trading systems and their unparalleled speed of operation compared to traditional forms of sales. Thanks to the development of technology we have the opportunity not only to observe, but also to participate in testing of new solutions, which will certainly only increase.

Words by Lucjan Bryndza, Head of Embedded Pillar at Altimetrik Poland

Copywriting by Kinga Kuśnierz, Content Writer at Altimetrik Poland

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