Retail Blockchain-Outside of payments, which is still mostly using cryptocurrencies rather than the underlying blockchain technology, the most active area for retail blockchain applications is in supply chain. On the surface this makes a lot of sense: supply chains depend heavily on cross-border situations where smart contracts could address current processes that are dependent on a lot of paperwork, letters of credit, escrow accounts, multiple currencies, and increasing governmental requirements around visibility into ports of origin, cargo contents, and general supply chain visibility.
Tackling some of these applications – especially smart contracts in the place of import documentation, or currency exchange – requires an enormous degree of coordination and cooperation, and sometimes with either large demanding parties (like the US Government for imports) or small parties that just aren’t tech savvy, let alone have regular access to the internet. It would be easy to think that this would be one of the harder areas to tackle because of these complications.
In fact, it has been easier than that. One, every party wants greater supply chain visibility. And solving that visibility is a core prerequisite to almost all of the other challenges that exist in supply chain today. What has been missing has been a neutral third party that still gives companies complete control over who can see their data (so that competitors don’t get access), along with the ability to revoke that access if relationships change, while also ensuring security that at a minimum provides immutability of data.
…And that sounds like a job for blockchain! In fact, there has been an enormous amount of activity around retail supply chain and blockchain. There are three main areas of focus: visibility, anti-counterfeit, and IoT/RFID. What follows is a round-up of activity in each of these areas. I just want to emphasize that these companies are being called out not because they are wildly successful – several businesses and/or their business models have not been established or proven in any way, and there’s no guarantee that any of them will be around tomorrow. I’m using them as examples of different ways of approaching the same problem, or as evidence that there is activity of some kind, but in no way endorse any of these companies. Invest at your own risk!
Supply Chain Visibility
IBM has been one of the most active companies around supply chain visibility, and has put together at least two consortiums of companies, as well as created an incubator that supports even more companies that are creating blockchain solutions that address supply chain visibility. Of note:
The IBM Food Trust blockchain consortium, which includes companies like Unilever and Nestle on the supplier side, and Albertsons and Walmart on the retailer side.
TradeLens, a joint IBM-Maersk consortium designed to tackle some of the thornier issues around import/export.