Bemis mixes Sigfox and BLE for indoor and outdoor tracking of smart shopping carts
For three years Bemis Manufacturing had been looking to engineer a smart shopping cart. It had cycled through various IoT technologies only to draw a blank each time, with coverage failing on way or another. And then it came across Sigfox, and then it integrated Bluetooth, and then the solution started to work.
The firm, best known for making toilet seats, has been producing all-polymer shopping carts since 2007, at home in Wisconsin, via a contract manufacturing job with another brand for US retailer Target. It launched a premium line of carts under its own name back in 2014, and had been searching for ways to differentiate its offer.
The company did its research, talking with retailers and customers about the trouble with trolleys. “They talked about wobbly wheels and squeaky carts, and not tracking straight. But they also talked about a couple of things: one was maintenance costs, and the other was this issue of theft,” explains Jon Bemis, general manager for the company’s retail solutions division.
Good design addressed most of these concerns, but the last of them, actually more about attritional losses than daylight robbery, was the spark for innovation the company had been looking for. One customer told Bemis it was replacing carts at a rate of three tailer-loads of carts per year – or three stores’ worth per year.
Where do all of the carts vanish to? They go to all corners, it seems, mostly as transport to get goods home – into poorer and richer neighbourhoods, alike, says Bemis. “It’s both places: they get snagged by residents in economically challenged areas, and in the condos and higher-end places, as well as the university areas.”
They also get sold for scrap, as well. “Dealers give cash on the barrel for the metal in the carts,” he says. He relates a time he was in Bentonville, in Arkansas, home of Walmart, and dialled the first scrap dealer he came across in a Google search, just to get a handle on the robber’s logic.
“I asked how much for a shopping cart, and they said: ‘Six bucks – but we wouldn’t do that.’” He laughs, and says: “There an active but very dark market for this stuff. These are assets they don’t want to lose – one or two is acceptable, perhaps, but truckloads are not.”
Hence the pursuit of a connectivity solution to track carts in the wild, and to offer an alternative to the clunky security wheel option to deter customers from taking them home. The company cast glances around the usual suspects in the IoT space, across both short-range and wide-area mediums.
Bemis comments: “We experimented with a couple of other solutions. We had looked at LoRaWAN, Wi-Fi-sniffing, Bluetooth beacons. We called up [Bluetooth tracker brand] Tile to buy a bunch in bulk, and dropped them into the cavity in the carts. It kind of worked, but there were limitations.”
Kyle Payne, sales manager at Bemis Manufacturing, chips in. “It is one thing to have a device on a cart that can locate where it is. You can do that with all different technologies – GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth. The hard part is getting the data off the device in a usable way. The connectivity piece is where we struggled.”
He goes on: “We went as far as to build our own LoRaWAN radio transmitter. But with grocery, you’re talking about many stores across massive areas. The ability to have a turnkey solution is important; most retailers don’t have the know-how or resources. Pre-existing infrastructure is really important, and Sigfox had it.”
Bluetooth failed outdoors, because short-range beaconing or mesh networking infrastructure is generally unavailable. LoRaWAN failed as an alternative because it required a network to be built from scratch. That was the case in Portland, in Oregon, at least, where its first trial was about to kickoff with a local retailer.
Payne reflects: “If you were to do this on your own, with LoRaWAN in Portland, you’d have to set up a radio tower every five miles. It is not feasible for any retailer to blanket a city in radio towers. In the end, there weren’t that many other choices for IoT connectivity in every city we were looking at.”
The praise is gushing; but the firm believes it has hit on the right combination, with the France-based IoT provider connecting an embedded module inside its polymer carts. Bemis rejoins: “The technology is right: it is long-range, and saturable. Plus, of course, it is low-power; retailers don’t want to be changing batteries or charging carts. It was the lowest-fuss solution out there.”
What does Sigfox say? After all, its US rollout had been somewhat stuttering, arguably, since it started in 2016. But the company’s strategy has focused on urban climes, notably transport hubs and city centres. Plus, it says, it will deploy quickly wherever there is an express (and financially substantiated) interest in IoT.
“Frankly, we are not just motivated by subscriptions, which means we are able to densify areas that some other companies wouldn’t. AT&T is not about to light up the Mississippi River, but we can affordably do that,” comments Shawna Witek, business development manager at Sigfox.
For its part, Sigfox says the work with Bemis Manufacturing is a prime example of disjointed, even competitive, elements within the IoT ecosystem pulling together, for once, in the same direction. “It is like that saying, it takes a village to raise a child,” comments Eddie Meyersick, IoT solutions portfolio manager at Sigfox. “It is the same: it takes an ecosystem to raise a solution.”
He goes on: “We are a competitive part of that ecosystem, but we are also bringing partners together to make solutions work. There will always be off-the-shelf solutions for easy tasks. But more complex models are coming in, where people want more data, and more services, and new ways to understand their customers.”
An unnamed device maker is also involved, as author of the cloud-based data visualisation platform, alongside the hardware that goes into the carts. But they key addition has been the mixing of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) into the recipe, to provide in-store tracking as a complement to the Sigfox-based services.
Meyersick continues with the story. “Initially, the use case was about lost shopping carts – to know when they went off-site and out into a city. Because they are kind of an eyesore, and cities are issuing mandates to fine retailers for lost carts. Plus, apart from anything else, they are hugely costly to replace,” he explains.
“But Bemis realised it do more by helping grocers to track people in store – to know where they were going, and where they stopped. So we integrated BLE to track in-store movement between zones, and make the data available to drive improvement – and also, of course, to help with social distancing.”
Payne picks up the tale, again. “We can install beacons at the entrance and exit, and anywhere else, to count customers in and out of stores, and gauge where they’re congregating. You can get very accurate picture of how people shop – how long they shop for, and where they’re loitering.”
Bemis adds: “That’s the holy grail, to know how customers behave in stores. Some of it is hard to do: a can of cake frosting is a can of cake frosting; how do you know whether I am looking at the Duncan Hines or the Betty Crocker? Where grocery stores can differentiate is with their fresh items – with dairy, meat, fruit, and veg.
“Our carts know how long people hang about in the meat department; they know that if you put filet mignon on sale, they hang around longer. The data provides insights about the most effective and consumer-appreciated promotions and activities and setups.”
The business case stacks up, according to some simple arithmetic. Standard shopping carts cost $90-$130 in the US; electronic security wheels, which lock when the cart crosses a boundary line buried at store exits or car-park perimeters, cost $40-$50 each, explains Bemis.
In some cases, two security wheels are fitted to a cart, raising the price to $130-$230, depending on the quality and security of the cart. There is the headache of burying cable in the ground, too, which can be complicated if the store is on a leased or rented, plus issues with batteries and maintenance.
In the end, a security wheel is only a deterrent, as well, says Bemis. “There are ways to defeat it, if you are really determined.” Bemis Manufacturing is offering an equivalent system, with all the signage, and better prospects for longevity and maintenance, plus a bunch of actionable intelligence in addition, the company says.
It has set a price of $160 for a premium dual-connected cart. The market is poised, it claims. The pilot in Portland, as it stands, is for 80 carts with a small-sized local chain. Still, Bemis Manufacturing rates at as the largest trial of its sort. “It is the first trial of its kind, at any kind of scale,” says Payne.
It started as a three-month taster, but has rolled on. “We are just now discussing the conclusion of the test,” he adds.
But whereas the Portland project is about preventing outdoor losses, the integration of BLE is driving indoor interest. The shadow of Covid-19 is colouring the strategy and stage-craft of retail as shops open again after lock-down. People tracking holds great appeal for retailers, and opportunity for the combined Sigfox-BLE solution, even as the pandemic has held up existing rollouts.
“We have a line-up of retailers waiting to implement this, and we have approached several others since we’ve had the BLE integration which are more interested in these alternative indoor uses,” says Payne.
Bemis rounds off; the firm has been around long enough to distinguish between faddish buzzwords and real disruption in the market, he says. Its inventory management system has been automated for two decades, already; it has selected which of its 200-odd injection moulding machines to connect for monitoring at its plant in Sheboygan Falls, in Wisconsin.
He explains: “The thing we’ve learned is to pick and choose where to put this stuff. Because it isn’t right, necessarily, to connect every single machine; you only need to connect the most critical ones. We have been very successful that way.”
The point is connected shopping carts bring new intelligence to retail operations, and make sense to augment with new technology. Some things do, and some things don’t, he reasons. Bemis Manufacturing makes all-manner of moulded plastics, like fuel caps and medical bits, and polymer-based industrial gubbins.
There is more to come from the company – although smart toilet seats seems a stretch. “This little startup group we have doing the carts is showing the rest of the company the value that can be achieved with IoT, and the more mature divisions are picking up on it,” he says.
He goes on: “You laugh, when you think, well, what’s disruptive about a shopping cart. And that disruptive is an overused term. But we are trying to offer more value and functionality in a basket on four wheels than our competitors. We have partnered with Sigfox to make them more than just a nuisance, and a necessary cost.
“Stores buy these carts because they have to – because shoppers can take more with them than they can with just their hands. By making them intelligent, we are making them a source of value in their own right, and a critical part of the asset structure in retail.”