The Internet of Things (IoT) – when objects such as buildings, vehicles and gadgets communicate with one another via censors and a communications network – is one of the fastest-growing trends in business right now, with more than half of U.K. businesses telling a recent survey that they intend to hire a chief IoT officer in the next year.

RoboCV automated warehouse technology is presented to representatives of major retail groups. Photo:

The key areas of focus in IoT are smart homes, smart cities, industrial internet, cars, health and agriculture, says Alexander Anufrienko, head of electronics and IoT within the Skolkovo Foundation’s IT cluster.

“But if there are, say, 10,000 companies working on IoT in the U.S. – primarily on technology for smart homes – then there are maybe 100 in Russia,” Anufrienko says.

One of the sectors that can see the most tangible benefits from IoT technology is retail, where IoT systems can save companies money or time, or in other ways make operations more efficient.

To help tech companies understand better what kind of solutions retail companies are looking for – and accordingly, what they are prepared to invest in – representatives of major retail groups including furniture giant and mall operator IKEA, Metro Cash & Carry, Castorama DIY stores, the Azbuka Vkusa supermarket chain, electronics retailer, food retail group X5 and the Podruzhka chain of cosmetics stores paid a recent visit to the Skolkovo Foundation to discuss their requirements with several of the foundation’s startups and offer them feedback on their projects. 

The holy grail of IoT for retail is a customer mapping system that would enable a company to compile data on where customers go in the stop, what route they take, where they stop and how long for.

The seminar was organized by Skolkovo’s Technology for Retail Centre, within which startups have developed more than 40 projects that they believe can be beneficial to retailers. The centre, which was launched at the end of last year, aims to be a channel of cooperation for Skolkovo companies working on retail solutions and major retail companies that could benefit from their products, and allows the startups to develop tailor-made projects for the retailers.

“Key Russian retail players have shown an interest in working with the foundation: it gives them access to innovations,” says Olga Strelova, head of the Technology for Retail Centre.

While the retail representatives’ requirements varied depending on factors such as the goods on sale and the size and format of their stores, they were all agreed on several points.

-          The holy grail of IoT for retail is a customer mapping system: technology that would enable the company to compile data on where customers go in the shop, what route they take, where they stop and how long for.

-          Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), in which electromagnetic tags are used to track objects and store information, is problematic. Retail experts agreed that the system is not effective or economical, with the tags not being readable by some programmes.

Surfancy's system is demonstrated on a set of shelves. Photo:

-          Electronic pricing systems that allow stores to change prices quickly and cheaply, saving on human labour and printing costs, are of great interest to retail companies. However, in stores where prices change during the course of the day, as yet no solution has been devised to overcome the problem of electronic prices changing between people picking up an item at a certain price and that price changing before they reach the checkout.

Retailers were divided on other issues, such as the value of automated information kiosks, which representatives of individual stores said had not proved necessary or effective, while in giant shopping malls they have proven successful.

Other systems that retailers identified as being useful included a face recognition system that would tell staff what a customer has bought before, a simple direct marketing system that would allow companies to communicate directly with their customers, and a mobile assistant device for shop floor workers that could provide them with comprehensive information about an item instantly, improving customer service.

As customers increasingly search for products online before heading to the store in person, another useful system would be one that would help customers find the item they are looking for straight away in giant premises such as DIY stores, said one retail representative. Another suggested that tech startups should monitor upcoming changes regarding Russian retail legislation – such as changes in labeling – and create devices or software that would help retailers comply with the new law with minimum expense and inconvenience. Another idea floated was a system that would send out push notifications to customers’ mobile phones when they walk near goods that are on offer.

Five Skolkovo startups striving to rock the retail industry 

Kyutu's systems monitor factors like temperature and humidity. Photo:

Surfancy turns ordinary surfaces into touch-sensitive areas. Its interactive shelves, for example, register when a product is picked up. The system can be used to trigger the playing of additional information – such as reviews and price – about the item, as well as for cross sales purposes, when the shopper then receives suggestions on what else to buy to go with the product.

Deus makes ME6, a smart lighting control system for offices and warehouses that allow users to control lighting via an app, save energy and give them control over individual areas.

Laboratoriya Kyutu uses radio-transmitters to transfer useful information such as the temperature, humidity, lighting level and presence of any water leaks in premises such as shops, warehouses and airports. Their system can be introduced via devices in trolleys, on cargo, in staff name badges or wrist bands worn by personnel. Kyutu’s portfolio includes introducing a system at the request of a restaurant that would alert staff when a rat trap had been activated – though the company gallantly declines to name the restaurant.

Vizerra makes 3D modelling software that can be – and has been – used by architects and engineers in the planning of buildings to make projects more efficient and reduce risks. Its technology has been used in the planning of the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games sites and the Skolkovo innovation city itself, as well as by Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. 

RoboCV makes automated warehouse technology, essentially turning forklift trucks into robots that can navigate warehouses, receive and move stock independently as needed. RoboCV’s technology has already been implemented by major international companies including Samsung and Volkswagen.