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ESL ushers in the age of smart shopping

11 February 2015 09:35:00

Ms. Smith goes to her local hypermarket to buy steaks for dinner and an LED lamp. In the past, she would have to search the aisles for these products, but not today. She gets out her smartphone, starts the app provided by the store to look for the LED lamp.  The app shows her where the LED lamps are and how she can get there.

As she puts the LED lamp into the shopping cart, her smartphone beeps to let her know that steaks will be sold at a special discount for the next ten minutes.  The new price is posted right after the announcement, and she rushes to the food section. Just after she grabs the meat at the discounted price, the price switches back to the original price.

This everyday scene is not set far in the future. It's actually happening now with many supermarkets and department stores introducing the Electronic Shelf Labeling (ESL) system. Just what is an ESL system and why is it causing a sensation among both consumers and the distribution industry?

Electronic shelf labels are the newest solution available to large supermarkets and department stores, enabling them to replace old paper labels with LCD, e-paper and other forms of display to show the price and advertise products that are on sale. Electronic shelf labels wirelessly receive the data from a central server. The system is composed of a gateway that delivers product information by using low power wireless communication technology and a tag that acts as a receiver.

With the implementation of an ESL system, distribution chains can manage the prices and inventory of thousands of items in the store on a real-time basis. An ESL system can also greatly save time and labor in changing the price labels. As for consumers, they can receive the location of the items they want as well as product information through communications between the ESL system and their smartphone, and order the items they want, pay for the merchandise and fill out the delivery request right on the spot. The ESL systems are likely to evolve into an Internet of Things (IoT) hub that provides a wide array of distribution-related services. TechNavio, a UK based technology research and advisory company, forecasted that the ESL market will post an average annual growth rate of at least 20%, and the market size will grow from $2bn this year to $5bn by 2017.

Many global suppliers of electronic parts are taking an interest in ESL, and some have launched initiatives in the development and mass production of ESL. One of them is LG Innotek, a global materials and components manufacturer which has been aggressive in pursuing its ESL business based on its global leadership in wireless communication and control systems, combined with its core technology for IoT development.

LG Innotek can provide customised ESL solutions to suit the characteristics of every store. Its product lineup includes small size 1.5" and 4.2" monitors and medium size 9" monitors, while the company has developed an NFC-based solution and products with special features such as water-proofing and sensing temperatures and humidity. In particular, the company has succeeded in developing and commercialising an ultra-thin ESL that is only half the thickeness of existing products with its exclusive technology. 

The company also plans to actively promote mid-range ESL products by using TFT-LCDs that offer full colour to screens.

LG Innotek developed stable, low-power ESL solutions by applying Zigbee, Wi-Fi and IR-UWB. They offer secure and integrated management of the central store system network by providing two-way communications that connect gateways with every ESL in the store. It's structured to monitor the current battery status of all the tags and send out a warning signal when the battery is low.  It also uses two-way communications to enable stable network management through real-time monitoring of tags and a gateway for the system administrator to take necessary measures in case of a system error.

The company is also developing a system that precisely tracks the location of a shopping cart in real-time to help customers shop more conveniently. The system can be applied to existing systems without any additional construction, resulting in more revenues for the retailers by saving costs. LG Innotek is planning to roll out its ESL products to large distribution chains in the U.S., Europe and Asia as part of a global marketing campaign.