Retail stores communicate basic product information and price to browsing shoppers through shelf labels placed near each product. Commonly these are printed labels in plastic holders or metal stands. Now we’re starting to see electronic shelf labels providing more information, quickly updated as price or other details change. Store clerks reprogram these electronic shelf labels using an NFC or RFID based device. But that approach is still slow and labor intensive. Shouldn’t a grocery store chain be able to update prices and other details from a central location? Of course, to scale out electronic shelf labels across large stores they must be very low cost and should consume little to no power.
Retail challenges and opportunity
Brick and mortar retailers everywhere are under significant pressure. They face competition from other stores and on-line options and must be able to respond quickly and uniformly with pricing changes and special promotions. They also battle with familiar challenges for us all – rising labor costs, high turnover and a tight labor market, inflation and supply chain problems. Yet retail stores still have unique advantages through an in-person product and shopping experience. They want to keep those advantages but more effectively manage costs and flexibility with automation. Electronic shelf labels are a good way to help meet that goal.
Today this is a somewhat niche market at 788M units installed but is expected to grow to 3 billion units by 2028. Unit prices today run to several dollars; these are expected to drop to support massive scale but this still represents a very healthy opportunity, ~$3B or more for electronic shelf labels makers.
BLE electronic shelf labels
The Bluetooth SIG ratified the 5.4 release in February of 2023. The primary feature in 5.4 is support for Periodic Advertising with Responses (PAwR) and the main target for that feature is electronic shelf labels. The big step forward here is that 5.4 allows for simultaneous broadcast from an access point (AP) to up to 7000 devices. In earlier revs store-wide updates would have required a ping-pong update to each label, taking significant time to update all labels. Now a large retail business can simultaneously and quickly update electronic shelf labels across the entire store with no need for manual intervention. One immediate payback is to reduce discounts demanded by shoppers because price labels have not been uniformly updated (this affects 5-10% of purchases apparently). Another benefit allows for fast response times in reaction to competitor price changes. Similarly, quick price responses to online competitors has been shown to reduce showrooming (checking out an item in store then buying it online for a lower price), also increasing brand loyalty.
The Bluetooth 5.4 release also allows electronic shelf labels to respond back to the access point, staggered in allocated timeslots to avoid conflicts and interferences. The most immediate benefit of this feature is to acknowledge that each label has received and made the update. More appealing uses are to provide shelf stock status, or to provide added shopper interaction/assistance, for example flashing the label when nearing an item they are trying to find, or guiding them to the next item in their shopping basket.
Incidentally, because security is a high priority in any automation, 5.4 also includes support for encrypted broadcasting.
BLE is the scalable solution
Why not use Wi-Fi? Because it can’t meet the incredible broadcast reach of BLE 5.4. Remember also that electronic shelf labels must be very low cost. Builders are aiming at 40 cents for the radio, a much easier target for embedded BLE than for Wi-Fi. Builders are also aiming at battery-less or very small battery devices, harvesting all or most of the required energy from ambient lighting or RF. While this option isn’t not yet massively deployed, BLE is the best candidate to meet this objective thanks to its low power consumption.
Today most electronic shelf labels depend on proprietary radio interfaces, a technology provider lock-in that will be very unappealing to retailer store owners who are already managing their costs carefully. An open standard that can support open market solutions for access points and for electronic shelf labels with different characteristics/price points from a variety of suppliers is the only way to go.
To learn more about this exciting growth area, check out our CEVA’s Bluetooth connectivity offering.
Published on the Bluetooth SIG website.
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