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10/20/2008
06:19 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
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SensorNets To Help Curb Retail Theft

One of the biggest wastes retailers must endure is inventory items that mysteriously disappear. Goods all too commonly vanish from the warehouses where they're stored, during their shipment, and from within the store itself. The German Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS has some ideas on how tech can be used to slow the shrinkage.

One of the biggest wastes retailers must endure is inventory items that mysteriously disappear. Goods all too commonly vanish from the warehouses where they're stored, during their shipment, and from within the store itself. The German Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS has some ideas on how tech can be used to slow the shrinkage.When I worked as a manager of a retail store, admittedly a couple of decades ago, inventory shrinkage was a big concern. Many items listed on the shipping manifest weren't actually in the truck during unloading. Where did they go? Were they ever really put on the truck in the first place? How about the items that disappeared off the store shelves? Were they ever actually on the shelf, or were they counted as received items that never really came in? Maybe they were stolen by a shopper or an employee.

Fraunhofer IIS thinks it can use wireless, ad hoc sensor networks to allow inventories to be tracked throughout delivery. They're calling it the VitOL project. Not sure what that stands for, but that's what it's called, from the company statement:

Intelligent logistical objects -- so-called "smart items" -- for the distribution of high-value or sensitive goods are being developed within the framework of the Fraunhofer VitOL project. By fitting small computers with communications facilities into logistical objects, each item becomes an active part of the IT-solution. Because they are "intelligent" in their own right, they represent significant added value in comparison with classic "passive" RFID systems that only transmit their information when called upon to do so.

What the company is trying to explain is that instead of the old-fashioned passive RFIDs that will transmit some data of their existence, the smart items can actually be "aware" of the items around them. That means is something falls off the crate and bounces off the truck, the remaining sensors will become aware of the loss, and perhaps notify the shipper.

So, maybe in the not-so-distant future, not only will surveillance cameras and security guards be watching in retail stores and stockrooms -- the products may actually be watching each other, too.

Although I haven't spoken with Fraunhofer IIS, I can see a number of fascinating use cases. Perhaps items will be easier to count as they're unpacked after receiving. Retail in-store inventories would be more accurate, and if the device can broadcast that it's leaving the location, the exact date and time it left the store could be reported. And if that time doesn't match a purchase, or intracompany stock transfer -- you know you had a problem and exactly when it happened.

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