Catalyst

When labelling gets smart, savvy and sustainable

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on October 04, 2019 Published on October 04, 2019

Intelligent tags are not just making shopping frictionless but are changing our lives

You are getting ready for a party at a friend’s place and pick out your favourite dress but then hesitate as you try to remember if you have worn it before to another event at her place.

Well, soon you can just consult your smartphone which will tell you how many times you have worn the dress and where all you wore it to, and prevent you from repeating it to the same venue.

Often, when we clean our cupboards, a long-forgotten saree or kurta emerges and you rue that you have missed out wearing it all this time. Such situations will be a thing of the past as the smartphone will give you an inventory of your wardrobe.

All this is sooner than you think. American firm Avery Dennison, which makes apparel branding labels and tags, RFID inlays and pressure-sensitive adhesive materials, among other things, has already activated these smart labels in some markets.

Every product in the future could have a digital identity — a digital twin of itself — that will reside in the smartphone of its user.

The potential that Pankaj Bhardwaj, senior director and general manager, South Asia, Avery Dennison, outlines is mindblowing. If you have worn your dress often and are bored with it, the label will tell you where to take it back for bartering, upcycling or recycling. Labels and tags, which were being used to usher in efficiency for the retailer and supplier, are moving to the next level — helping brands engage more with customers.

Frictionless shopping

When smart tags and RFID (radio frequency identification) was initially developed, they started with the goal of facilitating faster, smoother retail experiences for the shopper — what Bhardwaj calls “frictionless shopping”. If you, as a customer, went to a store, you would be disappointed if a shoe you wanted was not available in the colour or size you liked. RFID technology enabled storekeepers or brand owners to find out in real time if there was a product that matched the specs the customer wanted at the warehouse, or an outlet nearby. It transformed retail as it it led to faster inventory tracking, better information about availability around touch points as well as helping detect duplicates.

Now, Bhardwaj says, RFID is stepping up to provide another level of experience at retail stores. It is enabling cashier-less stores. If Amazon Go in the US pioneered the concept earlier this year, then Flipkart-owned Myntra is piloting the concept in Bengaluru. Avery Dennison is partnering Myntra at its Roadster Go outlet at the store where shoppers can pick up products without assistance from sales staff, and do self check-out, thanks to smart tags.

New functionalities

As we move on to a connected product era, label companies like Avery Dennison have a big role to play as they are the ones designing the chips or the technology in the tag that allow the products to transmit information back.

Think of your water purifier which has a label that changes colour when the filter loses its efficacy and the water quality deteriorates. There are now labels that transmit that data to the call centre and enable a push notification on your mobile to tell you to change the filter.

Think of airline baggage tags — soon will come a time when the tag will have so much information that the airline can earn extra revenue by arranging your bags to be dropped at your hotel or home.

According to Bhardwaj, clients, ranging from FMCG companies to pharma giants to e-commerce majors, are constantly pushing Avery Dennison for new solutions.

Two big asks, he says, are to create labels that will make the product stand out on the shelf and to infuse them with functionalities. For example, he says, a challenge for wet tissue manufacturers was that the product would lose moisture. So labels that enabled re-closure were created.

Increasingly, brands are wanting labelling solutions that address the issue of counterfeiting or tampering. This is a big demand from pharma and liquor companies, especially. Bhardwaj describes how digital identities have helped the issue somewhat in the case of liquor labelling, at the same time, enhancing the customer experience. For instance, the label on a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, when scanned by the user, can provide information on which meals it will be a great accompaniment with and so on.

For tamper-proofing, an innovative solution that has been tried out by a stationery firm, says Bhardwaj, is a smart label that changes colour. Typically, when cartons are transported, pilferage happens when somebody takes a carton out, cuts the label and puts a transparent tape to seal it. “We developed a product wherein, if you put a tape over the label, it changes colour, turns red. Thus, if any box in transit has a red tape on it, you know it has been tampered with.”

Sustainable solutions

The labels are not just getting smarter and savvier, they are turning sustainable too. Bhardwaj describes how a growing demand from companies that market products in plastic cans or glass bottles is to have labels that are easier to remove at their end. This is because increasingly companies are taking back used cans and bottles and recycling or downcycling them. “Not all companies have an automated washing solution to remove the labels — and were finding a lot of time wasted in manually scrubbing out the labels,” says Bhardwaj. Thus, experiments with different adhesives began.

In India, the company’s customers are getting hyper-active on the sustainability front, he says, describing how one customer has asked if Avery Dennison could work on a solution whereby the material of the label and the material of plastic container can be the same. “The polymers are different and so the can cannot be sent for recycling without the label coming off,” says Bhardwaj.

Internally too, the company kicked off a programme called Liner Recycling. Typically labels come in two parts — the adhesive part that sticks to the product, and the liner that comes out and is usually thrown away. The liner is made of siliconised paper and in bulk creates a lot of trash.

Avery Dennison has now started taking the liners back from its customers and tied up with mills to recyle these as shoe wrapping paper/ tissue paper.

Many people judge a product by its label — but now the label is taking a life of its own, admittedly a digital life!

Published on October 04, 2019
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