Stores are getting smarter by the day, driven in part by the robust experiences witnessed by the majority of us who increased our online shopping during the past three years. Classic brick-and-mortar stores are seeking to recapture foot traffic by ramping up their investment into in-store technologies.
Chief among these investments are internet-connected devices such as electronic shelf labels (ESLs) that digitally display pricing, smart tags that track inventory and movement of items and sensors that allow retailers to understand how customers are engaging with products.
Together, these types of devices sit within the broader Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem that is exploding; Analysts predict that by 2025, the number of IoT devices will outnumber all of Earth’s humans by a ratio of five to one, reaching nearly 42 billion in the next two to three years (up from an estimated 12 billion devices in 2021). Retailers in particular are expected to increase spending on IoT solutions during the next two years, eclipsing $84 billion by 2025.
All of these IoT devices, including those appearing more frequently in retail stores, share a common trait: the need for consistent and reliable power. Today, too many IoT devices receive their power from familiar but cumbersome sources, either by small replaceable batteries that need to be monitored and maintained manually by staff or by power cables and cords that restrict mobility and accessibility for the devices they power.
Yesterday’s Power Methods for Retail IoT
Think about the last large retail store you walked into. It may feature hundreds or thousands of IoT sensors and tags across store shelves, individual items and its inventory storage areas. Each of these devices requires consistent power to operate. Replaceable batteries don’t all deplete at the same rate, meaning one shelf may require multiple trips to replace dead batteries at various intervals, and most used ones — three billion, according to the EPA — end up in landfills as toxic e-waste annually.
Those retail IoT devices that are powered instead by cables and cords often lead to logistical IT nightmares (imagine having to canvas an entire store plugging in thousands of tiny dying or dead sensors), limit flexibility in designs due to the requirement of an open charging port and add hidden costs to IT teams managing large-scale deployments. Those power cables and cords also present an environmental hazard; the EPA estimates that only 15% to 20% of electronic waste and power cables are properly recycled, while the rest is improperly disposed of and, like replaceable batteries, also ends up in landfills.
The current retail IoT boom means these challenges will soon be exacerbated without a better alternative. If IoT is going to scale effectively and deliver the tremendous value it promises, we must transition to a more reliable and flexible power source.
Tomorrow’s Power for IoT is Wireless
Welcome to the growing world of wireless power networks, an ecosystem of technologies that includes transmitters and receivers enabling devices to receive power wirelessly across any distance. While wireless power networks can deliver reliable and consistent power for a huge range of applications, smart retail — with its projected growth of IoT devices, many of which will sit inside a single building and remain too reliant on replaceable batteries or wires for power — is a prime market.
Once embedded with the ability to receive wireless power over the air, retail IoT devices are free to achieve their full potential unburdened and untethered by outdated power methods. IT teams, meanwhile, are free from their chore of constantly replacing thousands of batteries and/or manually plugging in dead ones, and landfills will ultimately see less toxic e-waste.
Wireless power networks not only ensure devices are powered, but they can also support enhanced data processing for edge IoT devices, providing these low-power devices that are often positioned in isolated locations with increased abilities to gather, process, and communicate data via artificial intelligence, providing additional utility to IoT deployments.
In retail stores, wirelessly powered IoT devices can share information about their location, inventory/stock counts, purchasing data, what products and sizes customers are trying on in fitting rooms and how customers are engaging with products. These are the types of insights retail IoT devices promise and are why retailers are looking to deploy them, but without reliable power and/or the ability to communicate any information, their value is severely diminished.
Lastly, deployment of wireless power networks in retail stores allows designers of IoT devices more flexibility. Devices that are not powered wirelessly must accommodate for battery doors or charging points, open access points that add size, leave them vulnerable to the elements such as dirt and dust accumulation and limit their ability to be fully waterproof. This really handicaps designers of IoT devices, forcing them to adhere to unnecessary standards and stunting the overall promise of IoT’s expansion in retail and other markets.
Wireless power, however, frees IoT from its power and design burdens, enabling its full potential to deliver retail stores the invaluable insights they need and expect from their in-store IoT deployments.
The scale at which retailers are embracing IoT will soon outpace the ability of current power methods to meet its growing power needs. Wireless power networks can help remove IoT’s reliance on these insufficient power sources while simultaneously aggregating IoT device data transfer to the cloud.
When we free tomorrow’s IoT in these ways, we open up a world of flexible and mobile deployment with unlimited potential to truly transform the retail store experience in unimaginable ways.
Cesar Johnston, a seasoned technologist, entrepreneur, and investor, joined Energous in July 2014 and serves as the company’s CEO. He is. Prior to Energous, Johnston has had broad experience in large enterprises and startups. He has previously served as VP of Engineering for Wireless Connectivity at Marvell Semiconductor. Johnston holds a B.S. and M.S. in Electrical Engineering from the NYU Tandon School of Engineering and holds a Certificate of Business Excellence (COBE) from the University of California, Berkeley.