RFID-Tagged Umbrellas Track Shoppers' Movements In Philly

Each one is identified by a Motorola RFID tag that's inlaid in plastic and dangles from the strap.

Mary Hayes Weier, Contributor

May 31, 2007

3 Min Read

If you're walking around Philadelphia on a rainy day and take up a shopkeeper's offer to borrow an umbrella, then welcome. You may have just become part of an RFID-enabled experiment in mobile advertising.

A startup called Dutch Umbrella is selling advertising spots on umbrellas to shopkeepers and restaurateurs in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia. Patrons can borrow and later return them, or leave umbrellas at the "RainDrop" of a participating business owner. Dutch Umbrella, whose name was inspired by the bicycle-sharing program in Amsterdam, has signed up eight merchants as sponsors.

But these aren't just any umbrellas: each one is identified by a Motorola RFID tag that's inlaid in plastic and dangles from the strap. Dutch Umbrella periodically dispatches an employee with a handheld reader to visit business sites and identify each umbrella. This information is later loaded into software developed by Concept2 Solution.

Dutch Umbrella uses this information in a few different ways. First, it shows merchants that are paying $100 a month to have 100 umbrellas circulating their advertising messages that the umbrellas are getting used, and where their messages are being seen through various parts of the city. And because umbrellas are easily destroyed and sometimes go home with patrons, it also lets the company track which umbrellas are still in circulation.

Dutch Umbrella also creates printouts from the software showing where merchant's mobile messages have traveled; data they can then use for marketing intelligence. A restaurateur may discover that umbrella-toting patrons who visited his restaurant often have come from or departed to places close to the city's museums, signaling that's a good area to target for other types of advertising and promotions.

Dutch Umbrella is the brainchild of Joe Carlson, a bartender who wanted to help rain-drenched patrons with an umbrella-sharing system, and business partner Karen Rostmeyer, who envisioned a way to capitalize on the program by signing on sponsors.

"Any advertiser will tell you that in print, they have no idea who they are appealing to," Rostmeyer says. "What we're trying to offer our sponsors is some form of statistics and movement and analysis of customer base." Dutch Umbrella first considered bar codes and matrix codes, but ultimately chose RFID to avoid line-of-sight issues, she said.

The tags containing the RFID chips also direct umbrella users to Dutch Umbrella's Web site, Finditinphilly.com, which includes a search engine for locating local merchants and places of interest. Participating sponsors are advertised on the site. Dutch Umbrella eventually plans to locate stationary readers at RainDrop sites to eliminate the need for a roving employee. It also plans to give participating merchants access to a personalized area on its Web site where it can download information about the travels of their mobile ad spots.

The success of Dutch Umbrella will depend largely on whether it will be able to sign up a critical mass of sponsors, creating more RainDrop sites that help prevent umbrellas from dropping out of circulation. A good number of rainy days each year should help, too.

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