Retail: Smart clothing the next big thing?


By Matthias Poppel, general manager, secure mobility and retail, NXP Semiconductors

Imagine a world where clothes and accessories are on the cutting edge of technology. You could tap your phone to items in–store and access customer reviews or recommendations for matching items, check if designer products are authentic, or swap numbers and social media profiles with friends with a touch of a cuff or lapel to their smartwatch. It may sound like a sci-fi movie, but innovations in smart fabric mean this technology is already available today, and could very well be the next big thing in wearable technology.

Integrating existing technologies like radio frequency identification (RFID) and near field communication (NFC) into everyday items like clothing will not only change the way we shop, but also change the way retailers and brand owners can reduce cost and generate value. Use cases range from quality control and inventory management to in-store and post-purchase engagement.

Conductive threads are a key component of RFID labels on clothes. Such labels can be read over distances of up to 10 metres and are ideal for managing incoming and outgoing inspection at distribution centres, inventory checks on the shop floor or at theft detection gates. The sewn-in RFID label can additionally be used for authentication purposes to check whether a product is genuine and has passed all control points along the supply chain in order to combat grey markets.

Redefining the in-store experience

As a specified technology within RFID, retailers and brands can use the same technology platform to enable NFC tags into clothes. Readable on any NFC-enabled mobile device from within a few centimetres, NFC tags will not only transform the in-store experience, but enable a host of post-purchase features for both businesses and consumers.

NFC smart tags can provide consumers with access to additional information about products when in-store to improve the shopping experience and motivate on the spot sales. Giving consumers access to reviews for example could make them 105% more likely to make a purchase (according to research from ratings and reviews software provider Bazaarvoice).

Plus, NFC smart tags could help to cross sell by providing suggestions for other items in the store complimentary to the chosen product. Consumers could therefore receive recommendations on a full outfit, or even create their own by scanning more than one article with their device. In essence, the smart tag becomes a digital sales force.

NFC tags can even be used for brand authentication so consumers know they aren’t buying a ‘fake’.

Once out of the store, consumers can reprogramme the NFC smart tag with their own information. This can be anything from personal data or a copy of the receipt to a personal greeting if the item is used as a gift, contact details or social media profiles, just to mention a few possibilities.

Regaining brand loyalty

NFC smart tags can be particularly helpful for brand owners to stay in touch with customers and create brand loyalty in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Directing consumers to the brand owner’s webpage, or a product specific landing page is the simplest example. Together with a mobile device, NFC smart tags offer the opportunity for brand owners to directly engage with their individual end customer in many different ways.

Even just analysing anonymous user data like where, when and how often smart tags in certain products are tapped offers brands unparalleled information on how to improve their products and services. They could even feed this information into loyalty programmes and deliver tailored offers to frequent users.

As with any technology that stores personal data, location, or other sensitive information, security will be essential to gaining consumer trust. Information stored on NFC smart tags post-purchase will need to be encrypted. Mutual authentication, challenging whether tag or reader might have been compromised is available technology today. This will not be solely the responsibility of the brand or retailer in question. It will require collaboration of all the players in the NFC ecosystem.

Wearables may currently be synonymous with wristbands and smartwatches, but the use of radio technology in smart clothing and the apparel is likely to rapidly transform that in the near future. Technologies like RFID and NFC offer opportunities to create a new generation of wearables that redefines the way consumers shop and offers new business opportunities to brand owners and retailers alike. In this sense, wearable technology has the potential to be as equally disruptive in fashion as it had been elsewhere.

NXP Semiconductors is driving secure connections across IoT, automotive and wearables. The company is a co-inventor of NFC technology.


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