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Wal-Mart to Add Sensors

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DALLAS -- Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it's experimenting with sensor technology this year, pursuing two "proof-of-concepts" that would speed products to shelves and provide customers with better quality produce.

Integrating sensor technology to monitor temperatures with a sophisticated radio frequency (RFID) technology network would enable Wal-Mart to maintain quality produce and fresh foods on store shelves. "Think about bananas," said Carolyn Walton, Wal-Mart's vice president of IT, during at panel discussion at RFID World 2006 Wednesday. "I'll bet you didn't know what happens along that journey."

A crate of bananas arrives at distribution centers ripened by being exposed to nitrogen. Wal-Mart wants to find a way with sensor technology to ensure bananas on store shelves at Supercenters are the perfect ripeness for customers. The mega-retailer would integrate sensors with radio frequency identification technology.

Wal-Mart wants access to the data that identifies where the box has been on its journey, how long it took and exactly how much nitrogen it needs to reach the shelf at the perfect ripeness. The customer will have a premium quality product and Wal-Mart will have to markdown or throw away less food.

Wal-Mart, however, isn't the only grocery chain reviewing sensor networks to better manage the cold chain to protect food quality and safety. Randy Dunn, national director of RFID at ADT Security Services Inc., a Tyco division, is working on a similar project with an unnamed California-based supermarket. "It's all about maintaining the quality of food." Dunn said in an interview. RFID and sensor technology also can help to speed products from trucks to store shelves. On average, Wal-Mart Supercenter markets receive seven truckloads of freight daily. That accounts for approximately 7,000 boxes taken off trucks and prepared for stocking. What if stock clerks unloading goods had a wearable device to tell them where to put the boxes? In some cases the box will go directly to the store floor.

Speed to shelf would minimize handling and put products in customer hands when needed. "The numbers are big," Walton said. "A wearable device with alerts would help Wal-Mart unload freight more efficiently."

Walton said Wal-Mart is working with several technology companies on products that would enable an RFID event through this sensor network. This year, the retail chain also will focus on "precise execution" to make certain products, such as movie and music releases or holiday and promotional items are on the floor at the correct time. Gathering information and collaborating with suppliers, Wal-Mart knows when it doesn't get product to the floor fast enough at those stores equipped with RFID.

— Courtesy of TechWeb

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