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How Bluetooth® 5.4 Will Elevate Electronic Shelf Labels

Telink Staff

March 23, 2023


An electronic shelf label

Electronic shelf labels are getting a much-needed upgrade with the latest Bluetooth® Core Specification.

If you’ve been to a newly constructed retail store, chances are you’ve probably come across an electronic shelf label — a small digital sign that displays pricing and merchandise information and updates data in real time. Also known as ESLs, they’re quickly replacing traditional paper labels that require constant manual upkeeping as prices fluctuate, often costing companies time and confusing customers when discrepancies arise.

ESLs have been around since the mid-1990s and experienced considerable growth during the past few years with proprietary wireless communication protocols. Thanks to the latest Bluetooth® Core Specification, ESLs are further evolving to revolutionize retail operations and consumer experiences. Specifically, Bluetooth® 5.4 features Periodic Advertising with Responses (PAwR), a new capability that helps standardize ESL components for market interoperability. Here’s why this matters for consumers, developers, and retailers moving forward and how other Bluetooth 5.4 characteristics will redefine IoT in retail.

The ESL Market is Limited by Proprietary Protocols

ESLs can be implemented into any retail infrastructure. They require a low-power one-to-many communication topology between each shelf label and an Access Point (AP) that, in turn, may receive data from a local or remote central server housing updated product information. However, these labels don’t always interact the same way across retailers. Each company has its preferences when it comes to IoT vendors and devices, which causes segmentation and reduces interoperability. This lack of universality and emphasis on proprietary technologies has prevented ESLs from achieving widespread adoption — until now.

Industry leaders and member organizations from the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) collaborated to create an IoT solution that supports highly secure, flexible, energy-saving retail infrastructures. Since Bluetooth technology is a ubiquitous feature of most smart devices, it became the foundation for the next iteration of ESL architecture. Thus, Bluetooth 5.4 was born.

How Bluetooth® 5.4 Offers an ESL Solution

How Bluetooth 5.4 enables electronic shelf labels

Bluetooth 5.4 makes interoperable ESL systems a reality by adding a significant new bi-directional connectionless capability in Periodic Advertising with Responses (PawR) along with other feature enhancements:

  • PAwR: Facilitates ultra-low-energy, bi-directional connectionless data transmission over large-scale networks consisting of one-to-many topologies. Much more scalable than a collection of LE ACL connections, PAwR enables communication support for up to 32,640 devices in a network, with the flexibility to address a single device, a subset of the complete set of the observer devices, or all such devices.
  • Encrypted Advertising Data: Standardizes encryption for the transmission of advertising data packets, scan response and Extended Inquiry Response (EIR) packets. This security feature protects PAwR communications to safeguard against price manipulation, human error, and data leaks.
  • LE GATT Security Levels Characteristic: Allows GATT clients to determine the GATT server security conditions of all GATT functionalities, and to adjust to the required security level prior to accessing certain attributes. 
  • Advertising Coding Selection: Allows the host to specify the value of the coding parameter S to use when the LE Coded PHY has been selected for use with extended advertising. 

The scalability offered with PAwR is best suited for complex data environments like warehouses, grocery stores, and furniture outlets where prices and stock quantities vary throughout the day. For example, with Bluetooth 5.4, an ESL network can include up to 128 groups, each with a maximum of 255 member devices. This is particularly useful for intricate retail operations that use thousands of ESLs that can be grouped by product type, weight, shelf life, and more.

To facilitate real applications, the Bluetooth SIG is also finalizing an Electronic Shelf Label Profile, which leverages these new features of Bluetooth 5.4 to create a standardized process for relaying messages between an Access Point and ESLs.

For an in-depth breakdown of how this process unfolds, you can download the Bluetooth® 5.4 Technical Overview here.

What Bluetooth® 5.4 Offers Developers, Retailers, and Customers

New ESL capabilities mean more room for innovation. Bluetooth 5.4 gives developers better economies of scale when creating ESL devices and components, generating competition and increasing product diversity. With the elimination of an interoperability barrier, manufacturers and engineers can now ideate new ways to further break the boundaries of retail data management and distribution.

Retailers can now enjoy frictionless ESL implementation with the assurance that multi-vendor systems will not disrupt their operations or cause latency issues. For stores that have yet to test the waters, Bluetooth 5.4 offers them peace of mind knowing that investing in an ESL system means investing in the future of retail.

Bluetooth 5.4 also benefits shoppers. Automated data updates keep price and stock information accurate and reflective of shifting in-store conditions. For example, if a flash sale ends at a particular time during the day, retailers can program their ESLs to revert to their original prices once the discount period concludes. This elevates the customer experience by eliminating hiccups that can cause miscommunication, disorganization, and brand distrust.

Bring Labels to Life with Telink

For years, Telink has enabled customized protocols to make ESL ecosystems more accessible for our clients. Now, we’re able to push the boundaries of integrated data transmission. Stay tuned for our future SDK release, which will outline how our existing SoCs can support the ESL applications established by the Bluetooth 5.4 specification.

Contact us today or send emails directly to [email protected] to learn more about how Telink can transform your IoT retail landscape.