NTT Combines RFID, E-paper for Loyalty Card Alternative

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NTT Communications has begun trials of a high-tech alternative to plastic or paper loyalty cards that promises to simplify their use for consumers.

Loyalty cards are big business in Japan and it's almost impossible to spend a day shopping without being asked for one by a store clerk or, if you don't have one, being offered one. They range from simple promotions, such as a small discount after a set number of purchases, to more valuable ones like that of electronics retailer Bic Camera, where shoppers get up to 20 percent of the value of their purchase in electronic points that can be used at an equal value on subsequent purchases.

Suburban housewives typically have a wallet stuffed with the cards and a common complaint is that there are too many.

When cell phone carriers began rolling out electronic wallet services a few years ago many retailers began offering shoppers the ability to keep their points in a Java applet inside their phones rather than have a dedicated plastic card. However that has also led to a phone full of applications, one for each store.

The NTT technology, called "Gyazapo," hopes to simplify this by bringing together all loyalty cards in a single application. Like the others it's a Java applet and can be used in phones that also include the Felica short-range RFID technology. Most current phones support the technology.

Trials began this week at major Japanese electronics retailer Bic Camera and will also be tried over the next few months at two other retailers.

At Bic Camera users are required to first register their loyalty card number to the Gyazapo application. This can be done at the store's service counter. Then, each time they make a purchase, they start the application and bring the phone close to a reader/writer at the register. For the trial, the system isn't integrated into the point-of-sale system so a barcode representing the card number is displayed on a small e-paper display. This is scanned in the same way as a plastic card.

The trial will last for four months.

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