Guest Column | April 27, 2021

How Wi-Fi HaLow Technology Is Propelling The Evolution Of Smart Retail Stores

By Vahid Manian, Morse Micro

Connected Retail Store

Retail stores are leveraging smart, connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices and technologies to streamline operations, reduce costs and increase profitability while improving their customers’ shopping experiences. IoT solutions also help “brick-and-mortar” stores respond to the competitive challenges of online channels and e-tailers, comply with global trade regulations, and keep current with the ever-changing marketing plans of the brands they sell.

By combining IoT devices with cloud-based, real-time management tools and applying these technologies to the sales floor, retailers can meet their business goals while also reducing costs, increasing inventory turns, and managing operations more effectively. A wide range of interactive, connected devices such as digital signage, electronic shelf labels, portable scanners, smart tags, smart lighting, and cameras are now available to help retail stores transform their operations.

Connecting smart retail devices to the cloud services that manage them requires secure, scalable communications networks that do not interfere with existing wireless infrastructure. Based on the ratified IEEE 802.11ah standard, Wi-Fi HaLow provides an ideal protocol for smart retail applications and networks. Wi-Fi HaLow supports the performance, power, range, and security requirements of a variety of IoT devices. Unlike traditional 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and the latest 6 GHz Wi-Fi protocols, HaLow operates in license-free sub-1 GHz frequency bands for extended range and better penetration through obstacles. Wi-Fi HaLow utilizes narrower channel bandwidths (1-16 MHz) compared to traditional Wi-Fi (20-160 MHz) which provides a significant boost in coverage, incorporates new power-saving sleep modes, and supports a higher number of addressable devices.

Why Wi-Fi HaLow Makes Sense For Smart Retail Connectivity

Lower radio frequencies, especially in the sub-1 GHz range, travel farther and penetrate barriers like walls, ceilings, doors, and windows more effectively than higher frequencies operating within similar power budgets. Narrower channels also improve connectivity range and noise tolerance. New sleep modes supported by Wi-Fi HaLow make it feasible to operate wireless devices with coin cell batteries while extending their shelf life. The higher number of addressable devices (more than 8,000 per Access Point) improves total capacity for store networks, which could scale up to more than 100,000 devices.

Wi-Fi HaLow supports bidirectional encrypted communications and high-bandwidth transmission required for the normal operation of connected devices and for secure device upgrades using over-the-air (OTA) firmware updates.

Retail stores can add small numbers of Wi-Fi HaLow Access Points without impacting existing Wi-Fi floor coverage plans. Since Wi-Fi HaLow operates at sub-GHz frequencies, the signals are immune to the unpredictable 2.4 GHz RF noise generated by customer mobile phones operating with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. With its longer reach and higher capacity, HaLow can be implemented in a star-configured network, free from the congestion and latency problems of complex mesh-based solutions like Zigbee, sometimes used for building and lighting controls. By avoiding these constraints, Wi-Fi HaLow devices can be routed directly to on-premises servers or cloud-based hosts.

Let’s consider some smart retail use cases for Wi-Fi HaLow technology:

Digital Signage And Kiosks

IoT-enabled, high-resolution digital displays and Kiosks offer a convenient, flexible, and efficient means of providing useful store and product information to customers. Reconfigurable digital displays and Kiosks can be easily updated to reflect changes in product pricing, inventories, and merchandising floor plans. Portable signage models designed to operate on rechargeable batteries or inexpensive battery packs can be placed anywhere in the store environment including carts. Displays using low-power static electronic ink films can operate for years on a single set of batteries.

Digital Kiosks equipped with bidirectional wireless communications can interact with customers to answer questions and provide information in real time. They also can support retail affinity programs by tailoring content to unique customer profiles and help customers navigate throughout the space and locate desirable products based on personal shopping lists. Wi-Fi HaLow technology provides adequate bandwidth for fast, secure wireless links for digital signs and Kiosks deployed across long distances and through various building layouts that would otherwise block Bluetooth, Zigbee, or traditional Wi-Fi signals.

Electronic Shelf Labels

Many retailers are replacing traditional product pricing labels mounted on display shelves with IoT-enabled electronic shelf labels (ESL) designed to provide updatable pricing information. Automated pricing updates can be pushed over IoT connections to these labels from a remote location, significantly reducing time and labor costs of manual updates. ESLs can be updated multiple times per day as needed, ensuring accurate pricing information for customers, real-time competitive responses, and compliance with local product pricing laws.

Wi-Fi HaLow is an ideal low-power protocol choice for battery-powered ESL devices that must operate for years on small coin cells. Low-power Wi-Fi HaLow IC designs and power management techniques combined with the protocol’s energy-efficient features bring average power consumption rates down into the tens of micro Watts, depending on sleep and update cycles. Today’s low-power electronic paper technologies further help ESL device manufacturers meet their battery life goals.  

The low-latency bandwidth of Wi-Fi HaLow enables developers to create ESL solutions that interact with both customers and employees searching for products displayed on store shelves. HaLow-enabled ESL networks reduce the time customers spend searching for product and help stocking clerks minimize the time and effort to replenish inventories.

Wi-Fi HaLow enables ESL devices to be placed in any location throughout a store, regardless of absorbing materials or reflective merchandise that might interfere with RF transmission. Sub-1 GHz narrowband RF channels are well-suited for reaching the nooks and crannies of large stores or distant locations in warehouses or parking lots. Wi-Fi HaLow reduces ESL deployment costs by providing better RF coverage and eliminating proprietary hubs, repeaters, or gateways required by Zigbee or optical networks. HaLow also offers higher bidirectional bandwidth to support faster data transfers. ESL developers are discovering that the longer reach, lower power, better penetration, higher bandwidth, and increased security of Wi-Fi HaLow make it an ideal protocol choice to replace older proprietary RF and optical solutions.

Handheld Scanners

Customers and store clerks are no longer bound to using traditional price scanners at check-out counters at the front of the store. Mobile price scanners are increasingly commonplace in mainstream retail stores. Shoppers can pick up a scanner and simply pre-scan items they place in their carts while they shop, enabling them to streamline the cashier experience and reduce their wait times at checkout. These interactive, battery-powered scanning devices connect wirelessly to the store network and must operate in all corners of the store. Store employees save time and labor when they use the scanners to fulfill orders for home delivery services or to restock merchandise. Wi-Fi HaLow can increase the reliability of the RF signal and reduce total power consumed by these devices, enabling them to spend more time in use and less time in battery-charging cradles.

Inventory Control And Logistics

Retail stores have used RFID technology for decades for loss prevention and in-store tracking. Typically located at the front of stores, RFID readers are usually tethered to a power supply and network connection. Wi-Fi HaLow provides a backhaul data path along with wireless connectivity to enable RFID readers to be placed in more flexible locations in the store. Although RFID readers may still need a mains power source, they no longer require a data cable and associated installation costs to connect to the wiring closet.

The Wi-Fi HaLow protocol’s low power dissipation also supports battery-powered tracking and surveillance cameras inside and outside stores. Many retailers are upgrading their loss prevention plans to incorporate more creative placement of wireless cameras in inconspicuous locations.

Economical Wi-Fi HaLow sensors can be embedded in pallets and shipping boxes throughout the retail supply chain as part of a comprehensive logistics system. Wireless sensors can be used to track goods shipped from suppliers from various transportation hubs and distribution warehouses to receiving docks. HaLow-enabled sensors can provide access to valuable information throughout the journey, providing insight into environmental conditions of temperature-sensitive goods such as groceries and medical supplies. Compliance with cold-chain profiles is essential to ensuring the safety and quality of shipped goods. Sub-GHz HaLow signals reach farther and penetrate shipping materials better than proprietary solutions. These improvements in supply chain tracking and inventory control ultimately help reduce waste, loss of inventory, and missed sales opportunities.

Building Automation Systems

Large retail stores can use Wi-Fi HaLow systems to aggregate building automation functions such as HVAC, refrigeration, access controls, lighting, and security cameras onto store networks with more total device capacity, better reach, and deeper penetration throughout the building. Wi-Fi HaLow is an excellent wireless technology for stores that manage their own equipment such as refrigerators and freezers, which require an array of connected sensors and controllers to monitor conditions. Combining lighting controls with proximity and motion sensors can yield useful information about customer traffic patterns, providing valuable insights to help optimize sales through more effective inventory and floor planning.

Wi-Fi HaLow For A Multichannel Future And Quality Retail Experience

Online shopping and mobile connectivity have blurred the boundaries where retail stores begin and end. Many consumers use multichannel shopping to find and choose the right products based on price, quality, and availability. Stores that have embraced multichannel and even omni-channel models must implement integrated pricing and inventory systems to provide customers with uniform, high-quality shopping experiences. Stores that use smart retail systems built on standard wireless network solutions like Wi-Fi HaLow are well-positioned to collaborate and join forces as the retail industry continues to evolve.

Wi-Fi HaLow provides an optimal wireless networking solution that will truly enable all connected devices within modern, smart retail stores. From digital signage and Kiosks to handheld scanners to electronic shelf labels, Wi-Fi HaLow connects smart retail devices cost-efficiently and securely across large store environments, creating a superior customer experience and competitive advantages for retailers.

About The Author

Vahid Manian is a leading entrepreneur, his 35-plus years of semiconductor contributions include Vice Chairman of Board of Directors for Global Semiconductor Alliance (GSA) and a founding member of Broadcom’s operations organization, where he grew the company from pre-revenue to nearly $6 billion, shipping over 1 billion devices annually. Before joining Morse Micro, he was COO of Ethertronics Corporation.