Metro exec imagines 'smart fridge'

But customers are wary of RFID technology

BOSTON -- Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is crucial for the retail industry's future, but there is still a lot of resistance to it among consumers, according to Gerd Wolfram, managing director of IT at European retailer Metro Group.

Wolfram talked about the importance of RFID to Metro during a keynote speech Wednesday here at the ERIeXchange retail user event. Metro, like U.S.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., is a major backer of using RFID to improve supply chain efficiency and avoid stock outages. In fact, Wolfram called RFID the "key technology" at Metro.

Historically, the technology of choice for identifying items coming off a truck to the store has been bar codes, but that requires a person to be in the line of sight of the objects being scanned. In addition, bar coding can only identify a range of products. It doesn't allow for the identification of, for instance, a single bottle of soda. RFID, on the other hand, can identify separate objects using the Electronic Product Code (EPC) standard. Metro is already using the technology in its supply chain processes to automate checks on the flow of inventory.

But the logistical benefits are only a beginning, he said. In five to 10 years, Wolfram envisions consumers owning a "smart fridge" with an RFID reader embedded in it that can automatically monitor the contents inside. If someone puts a bottle of milk inside, for instance, the smart fridge might wirelessly communicate that to a nearby PC or send a message over the Internet to let the shopper know that it's there. Not only can a smart fridge and RFID communication help shoppers buy what they need, it could also automate the process of payment. A "smart trolley" could be used to tally up the items without manual intervention.

"At the checkout, everything is scanned and you just pay," Wolfram said.

He also suggested that inventory will eventually be scanned at the item level, as long as consumers are shown how RFID-enabled applications work to their benefit. RFID technology now suffers from "too much negative press" that is making shoppers wary. And its use to automate checkout processes makes some shoppers fear that workers' jobs are being cut.

"This [customer education] will take some more time," he said.

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