Ice cream with (RFID) chips to go

St. Paul ice cream shop turns to RFID to give customer real-time scoop on flavors

Businesses are using Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags to track everything from large shipping containers, to livestock to tiny electronic components. It's unlikely though if any business is using the technology for the same purpose as Izzy's Ice Cream Cafe in St. Paul, Minn.

The shop, which epitomizes the classic mom-and-pop business, has concocted close to 100 flavors of ice cream and serves 32 flavors at any one time. Until this week, customers had little way of knowing if their favorite flavors -- Peppermint Bon Bon, Cherries Jubilee and Dulce de Leche to name a few -- were available until they arrived at the counter.

Not any more. On Monday, Izzy's started using RFID technology to give customers real-time updates on all the available flavors in its dipping cabinet, the glass covered case where the tubs of ice cream are displayed.

RFID readers stuck in the dipping cabinets scan tags attached to the signs that go above each ice cream tub to give customers updated information on available ice cream flavors. Each time one tub of ice cream is replaced with a new flavor, an employee swaps out the RFID tag in front of the tub with the one corresponding to the new flavor.

RFID readers in the dipping cabinet scan the tags 22 times every second and send the information to a system which then projects a series of dots representing different flavors onto a wall in the store.

Customers glance at the colored dots projected on the wall, or on the plasma TV behind the counter, to find out what flavors the store is serving at any time. No more anxious moments of uncertainty. No more even having to come to the store to get the scoop on what Izzy's has available. The information grabbed by the RFID readers is pumped to Izzy's Web site where a new Web page lists all the flavors the shop is serving.

Those willing to risk missing out on their favorite flavor can even tarry a bit on the Web page and play a memory game with the dots. Or they can hover over the dots to discover that Izzy classics, such as its Dark Chocolate Zin, is made from Italian balsamic vinegar and Ravenswood red zinfandel, or that perennial favorite Salted Carmel is almost always available. Customers who sign up, can get e-mail updates (and soon text messages) when their favorite flavor is being served. Izzy's also sends updates to its Facebook page and Twitter account.

If all this seems like a bit much for an ice cream shop, it isn't for Jeff Sommers, the English major and fine arts grad-turned-tech nerd who, along with his wife Lara Hammel, runs the store.

"If you live in the world of selling ice cream, the problem you run into on Day One of opening is how to tell your customers what flavors you have in the cabinet," Sommers said.

With limited space in front of the cabinet, most ice cream shops resort to listing available flavors on display boards behind the counter. It's a system that is manually intensive and prone to errors, especially when a shop sells as many flavors as Izzy's does, Sommers said. And it results in too many crestfallen customers at the order counter after they learn their favorite flavor is sold out.

With RFID tags on its ice cream tubs, customers can track the flavors available at Izzy's Ice Cream Cafe in St. Paul, Minn., by checking the shop's Web page.

Sommers, who professes a fascination with technologies involving sensors and sensing networks, decided to try RFID to solve the problem.

"I just love consuming innovative ideas," Sommers said. Getting technology companies interested in his scheme was tricky, he admitted. Finding an RFID systems integrator interested in such a small project and a software company willing to implement the Web interface was challenging, Sommers said.

"In hindsight, it was a bit like walking into a fancy car dealership and asking to buy a car for $1,000," he said.

Technology companies were initially skeptical about working with such a small client. "So I had to put on a real full court press to get them inspired by it," Sommers said.

Steve Haben, a senior engineer with AbeTech Inc., the Rogers, Minn.-based company that helped Izzy's deploy the RFID technology, admitted to being wary about the project when Sommers first approached the company.

Izzy's was by far AbeTech's smallest RFID client. The ice cream shop's proposed application of the technology was also very different from the usual fixed asset tracking applications for which most AbeTech clients use RFID. Most of AbeTech's clients, which include some Fortune 500 companies, use RFID to track the movement of assets in their manufacturing facilities, warehouses and distribution centers.

Sommers wanted to take the technology in a "new direction," by using RFID to provide real-time visibility of his products, Haben said. "In his world, this really was the big challenge," he said.

The task took a year to complete and has had its share of challenges. The original plan was to stick RFID tags directly on the ice cream tubs, but the tub surfaces turned out to be too smooth. So the tags had to be stuck on the signs in front of the tubs, after first having them laser-cut to size and shape. Sticking RFID antennas in the dipping cabinet to read the tags was also tricky. That issue was resolved with the help of a neighbor who works in the prosthetics industry and suggested trying materials used in orthotics to affix the antennas to the cabinet.

Less than four days after rolling out the project, it has already hit its first glitch. Too many Facebook updates caused some "frustrated chatter" among followers and prompted Izzy's to disable the updates to the social networking sites while it works out the kinks.

So how does one measure ROI with an effort such as this? Sommers has little idea beyond hoping that some "generous economist" will help him figure out that one. For the moment, he is happy measuring success in terms of customer satisfaction. Sommers figures that if he can make customers happy by making their experience in the store a smoother one, the effort is worth it.

"I want to make customers really proud to be spending money at my store. I want them to say. 'I want to be a customer in that place, ' " he said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld . Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com .

Read more about security hardware and software in Computerworld's Security Hardware and Software Knowledge Center.

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