One of the true strongholds of in-store shopping, where consumers prefer to physically go to the store rather than purchase products online, is the supermarket; and with good reason. The quality of an avocado can only be assessed by being picked up and felt with the hands. It requires presence. Still, the supermarket has undeniable inconveniences. Does anyone enjoy walking up and down the aisles, staring at the hanging signs trying to find canned tomato puree? After nearly running down three old ladies, the only option is to ask for help. But the apathy of the teenage store-clerk with a few chin hairs he passes off as a beard is so deflating that you walk away wondering why you even wanted canned tomato puree in the first place.
Thankfully, the future has come just in time to save us from this plebeian annoyance. Harold Hass, a professor of engineering at the University of Edinburgh, has spent the past several years researching LED lights and how they can be used as data transmitters. His research is finally making its way into the marketplace, with stores using these LED transmitters to communicate with shoppers in a unique way. It works as an alternative to Wi-Fi, and has been popularly dubbed Li-Fi.[ted id=1202]
What does this new technology have to do with supermarkets? It completely changes the way you shop for food. The Dutch tech company Royal Philips is currently piloting a system in Europe that uses a grid of data-transmitting LEDs to connect to shopper’s smartphones. After downloading the system’s app, the lighting can communicate with each user, guiding them through the store based on their location and which products they are looking for.
LEDs can only transmit data to areas their light visibly reaches (done by flickering at speeds imperceptible by the human eye), and since Philips’ in-store model consists of a framework of LEDs, it functions like a GPS. This allows the lighting to transmit data to each shopper specific to their location, something Wi-Fi simply cannot do. In a press release from February 17th of this year, Philips’ used the example of a shopper planning a Mexican-themed dinner to show how the app would work. Using the lighting above, the app guides the shopper to where the guacamole is, or plans a route around the store for each ingredient if he wants it made fresh. The app would show deals and sales in the shopper’s immediate vicinity and even suggest alternative recipes.
Soon enough, there will be no need to walk blindly ahead as you crane your neck looking down the aisles (now you can walk blindly ahead staring down at your phone). It’s like having a personal shopping guide who knows the best deals and where to find everything. And it all comes from the lights above your head.
The potential applications of this technology clearly go beyond the supermarket. In fact, the New York Times reports that Newark Liberty International Airport is already making use of LED fixtures for security purposes. Hooked up to a system of cameras, the lights collect a vast range of data used by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The same article also states that the city of Copenhagen is installing 20,000 LED streetlamps that could be used for traffic control, among other services.
Aside from these slightly creepy Big Brother/NSA-ish uses, Li-Fi technology seems especially promising for retail stores. Systems like the app developed by Philips’ could help shoppers navigate around any store with LED transmitters the way they would shop at online markets like Amazon. Instead of having to search tirelessly around massive department stores, shoppers would be directed straight to what they are looking for while being updated on the newest deals. This is similar to the advertisements seen online that cater directly to users based on their search history, only that these promotions would depend on a users physical location.
Columnist Clare O’Connor writes in a Forbes article that this integration of digital technology into brick and mortar stores is essential to their survival in the face of online markets. She cites a study by retail consultancy WD Partners suggesting that while Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers valued immediacy of ownership while shopping, Millennials “…ranked ‘unlimited options’ and ‘customer reviews’ as their top two shopping ideals. ‘Instant ownership’ came third.”
If these brick and mortar stores hope to survive, they will have to gain the favor of Millennials. This will only be accomplished by providing a service comparable to online shopping, a task for which data-transmitting LEDs and apps like Philips’ are ideal. With faster megabits per second speeds than Wi-Fi and the ability to be location specific, it may not be long before the LEDs lighting up your local department stores are also telling you where to find those pair of shoes you’ve been looking for.
Oh, and that can of tomato puree? Already got it…on discount. Cha-ching.