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These E Ink shelf labels could save retail

Mon, 06/16/2014 - 1:18pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Jason LombergE-commerce has many intrinsic advantages over brick-and-mortar, but the fundamental difference is similar to print vs. online journalism — the ability to make dynamic changes. One can, and one can't. Which makes electronic shelf labels — incorporating E Ink and similar technology — a paradigm shift for retail.

A quick bit of trivia: Before I came to ECN, I worked retail for 11 years, and one of my responsibilities at my first “real” job — CVS — was swapping out the weekly sales tags. That is, I methodically strolled down every aisle, removing the old signs and staging the new ones. It was painstaking, precise work, and I inevitably missed a few.

Electronic shelf labels (ESL), as seen at the E Ink booth at SID Display Week 2014.Never mind the obvious — sales at CVS, and most retail shops, run on weekly cycles, leaving brick-and-mortars ill-equipped to compete with the highly dynamic e-commerce landscape. But what if sales tags could be updated dynamically via wireless connection? E-Ink — and a few competitors — aim to solve this conundrum with their electronic shelf labels (ESL), which provide low-power operation and the ability to update almost instantaneously.

You probably know that E-Ink technology is bi-stable, meaning that it only uses power to update itself. Displaying a static image uses virtually no power — a huge boon for e-readers and other applications utilizing e-paper, including ESLs.

Imagine being able to react to the latest deal on Amazon in the time it takes for a wireless connection to transmit a piece of information. No missed sales tags and no arduous processes. And the local shop can stay one step ahead — or at least keep pace — with e-commerce. And with a shelf life (no pun intended) of 5 years, the ESLs are a sound investment for retailers.

E-Ink recently briefed me on their ESLs, and based on what I saw at SID Display Week, I believe these electronic labels soon be ubiquitous and possibly even save retail. What happens when brick-and-mortar can dynamically price-match e-commerce?

The ESLs are already in use throughout Europe, and the company has a partnership with Nebraska Furniture Mart in the US.

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