The tiny chip that could power big changes in how you shop

The tiny chip that could power big changes in how you shop

NEW YORK — Next time you’re at the mall, take a closer look at the paper price tag dangling from the clothes you take into the dressing room.

If you hold the tag up to a light, you might see a dark, salt-grain-sized speck in it. Or, if you run your thumb over the tag, you might feel an almost imperceptible bump.

This is a radio-frequency identification chip — better known as an RFID chip — and you can expect to find a great deal more of them in stores this year as retailers increasingly bet the technology can be a critical part of solving their most vexing problems.

This week at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, vendors here showed off some of the ways RFID is being used to make in-store shopping more experiential and to execute behind-the-scenes changes that might boost sales.

Impinj, which shipped 3 billion of these chips last year, demonstrated how its technology is being used at trendy apparel chain G-Star Raw.  At G-Star, when a shopper approaches a large TV screen with a piece of RFID-equipped clothing in hand, the screen will instantly showcase more information about that product and recommendations for how to build a complete outfit with it. Kenneth Cole, L.L. Bean and New Balance are also testing variations of this technology.

Adobe and Razorfish displayed a similar use case, in which shoppers in a shoe department could place a chip-equipped shoe on an RFID reader, and then could learn more about the product on an iPad and notify a sales associate that they were looking for it in a certain size.

Not all uses of RFID technology will be immediately noticeable as you wander a store.

With RFID chips — which don’t use battery or electricity and cost just pennies to make — every item in a store can have a unique identifier. Thus, any specific item can be easily located by an RFID reader, a companion technology that communicates with the chip.

In this way, RFID can make it much easier for a store employee to quickly find certain products and, for example, help a shopper score the bootcut jeans he couldn’t find in his size because the last pair had been stuffed on the wrong rack.

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