One of the last in-person events I attended pre-Covid was the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in New York City.

There, I got a chance to see the battery-free Bluetooth tags developed by Wiliot. Each tag incorporates a three-core ARM processor, memory, radio, and sensors that let the tag track temperature, weight, and motion…all in the form factor of a postage stamp.

Checkout the demo by Wiliot’s Steve Statler during a panel discussion I recently moderated through Syracuse University.

Also at the Big Show were a range of solutions for realizing contactless stores.

In retrospect, this seems especially prescient. The idea is to allow customers to put items in their own bags as they shop and pay by simply walking out; the store will register their purchases and charge the customers’ credit cards via smartphone app. But when the specialized infrastructure for enabling this vision costs $1 million per store, it’s a non-starter for many businesses.

But what if each item in the story came with its own, affordable tracker? What if every package and article of clothing could report getting picked up and leaving the store?

That’s the promise of Wiliot’s tags. They not only pack the technology needed to make it work, but they’re also cheap enough to apply to a wide range of even low-margin products. Also, they rely on ordinary IT infrastructure such as Wi-Fi routers rather than expensive, specialized in-store infrastructure to work.

But Wiliot’s vision goes further. Products with Wiliot tags incorporated into labels could enable a host of other capabilities, from in-store engagement (how many people are checking out what products over what period of time) to automatic reordering at home (how many times has a user picked up that shampoo bottle to use it?), and instant product recalls.

The effect will be like bringing the page views, clicks, and shopping cart additions (even if not purchased) of online retail into the physical store, and the capabilities of Amazon’s late Dash buttons into the home with each product.

As with online interactions, trust and privacy will be a concern for shoppers, but the benefits will accrue to retailers and manufacturers who get this right, including:

  • Faster supply chains that can react in real-time to demand signals from customers for in-store placement and just-in-time delivery.
  • Subscription services for consumables that respond to actual usage.
  • Accurate spoilage information for food and medicines (how long has that vaccine been at higher-than-optimal temperatures?).

Robert Schmid, leader of the Internet of Things practice at Deloitte, tells me that that last use case might be first out of the gate for Wiliot’s tags, starting with Covid-19 vaccines, but that’s just the beginning.

“This idea that there’s a battery-less computer that you can stick on anything,” he said, “and it gives you location, temperature, and other environmental variables, depending on what you need—that’s just super, super interesting to me. Because, to me, that’s a disrupter.”