New LED system charts a course through supermarkets

| March 18, 2014

Supermarkets aren’t designed to move shoppers quickly through the store (in fact, most are designed to encourage customers to spend more time and money). But a new LED system may soon help supermarket shoppers

LED lights could make grocery shopping a lot easier. From Sean MacEntee.

LED lights could make grocery shopping a lot easier. From Sean MacEntee.

navigate store layouts more efficiently — and it may also add to their smartphones’ long list of notifications. As research company PSFK reports, a new navigation system from Philips is providing customers with a map, charting their location and directions to the items they’re shopping for, via mini LED lights.

Shoppers would access the Philips system via an app from their smartphone or tablet once inside the supermarket, and then input their shopping lists or recipes. The system would then plot out the best route for the customer to follow, and provide the items’ exact locations via overhead LED lighting. The app may also provide suggestions for new products, answers to general recipe queries, such as “dessert,” as well as directions to packaged products and their fresh alternatives.

Reports Gizmag, “The system incorporates LED bulbs that are installed in the existing overhead fixtures. Depending on the specific fixture in which it’s placed, each of those bulbs will flicker at a different distinct rate.” Customers won’t see the flickering — it’s too fast for the human eye to notice it, but a smartphone’s camera can detect it.

When a shopper is seeking a particular product, “the app starts by ascertaining the person’s location within the store, based on the flickering ‘signature’ of the fixture immediately overhead.” Then, the app accesses a map of the store to guide the customer to the item.

“The beauty of the system is that retailers do not have to invest in additional infrastructure to house, power and support location beacons for indoor positioning,” Gerben van der Lugt from Philips Lighting told the Daily Mail. “The light fixtures themselves can communicate this information by virtue of their presence everywhere in the store.”

LED lights can help with wayfinding. From Nao.Fujita.

LED lights can help with wayfinding. From Nao.Fujita.

Similar to the Apple iBeacon product (another indoor navigation tool accessed with an Apple device that’s making an appearance at this year’s SXSW)  the Philips system is currently being tested in Dusseldorf, Germany. In addition to store navigation, the app may also allow businesses to alert customers to discounts and products based on their location — which may be convenient or intrusive, depending on which customer you ask.

The concept isn’t a new one. Google already provides store maps charting departments — though not specific products — in some supermarkets, and other LED manufacturers in addition to Philips have been developing similar technology. AisleFinder, a smartphone app created in 2011, provides users with the aisle number for specific products. And in 2012, reports LEDs Magazine, the startup company ByteLight announced funding for a “very similar technology to the one demonstrated by Philips,” used for campuses, museums, conventions, and other locales.

Some stores are already making use of the technology to encourage customer spending. Notes PSFK, retailers including Macy’s, American Eagle, and MLB baseball ballparks have been experimenting with Apple’s iBeacon. Last fall, Macy’s customers who entered certain stores in Manhattan and San Francisco received notifications on their iPhones alerting them of a shopping app, and of products and discounts. Customers will have to weigh for themselves the dueling concerns of information privacy and everyday convenience.

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