RFID could Revolutionse Retailing

Knowledge@Wharton writes:

Fans say that RFID technology promises to revolutionize the supply chain through real-time item tracking. Its goal is to keep goods on the shelves, garner more efficiency through better inventory management, enhance safety through smart recalls and cut theft, known as “shrink” among retailers. This is made possible by the fact that when RFID tags emit radio waves, that information is absorbed by a reader, which can then compile and share it with a company’s enterprise software. Suppliers can benefit from real-time inventory management that keeps goods on the shelf. Consumers may not immediately see a lot of major changes, but they would certainly benefit from better in-stock levels.

Here are a few scenarios that Wal-Mart says it would like to see beginning in 2005 as it implements RFID on a wide scale. A case of a product leaves a manufacturer and is tracked and instantly routed when it reaches a Wal-Mart distribution center. There’s no need to rip open a case and inspect the contents because the RFID reader has already identified the item. At the store, the goods are monitored in real-time so there’s no need for inventory. When the shelves are empty, RFID readers alert workers to restock the shelves. If Wal-Mart’s inventory is depleted, a replenishment message is automatically sent to the supplier.

“RFID could put more goods on the shelf,” says William Cody, managing director of Wharton’s J.H. Baker Retailing Initiative. “It would certainly be better than having a skeleton crew walking around filling empty shelves. You could eliminate goods being lost in the back room.”

Today, inventory processing requires line of sight for bar code scanning. Bar codes aren’t going to disappear, but they do have disadvantages compared with RFID. Notably, bar codes introduce human errors, can only encode limited and static information, don’t offer read/write capability and cannot read multiple codes.

Cohen explains the difference between current inventory management and RFID enabled systems this way: In current systems, you may know there are 10 items on the shelf, and that information is compiled in an enterprise planning software system. With RFID, you know there are 10 items, their age, lot number, expiration date and warehouse origin. Its like knowing there are 1,000 people in a city, says Cohen. With RFID, you know their names.

Most of the benefits from RFID at present will be tied to the supply chain and within three- to five-years electronic tags carrying product specific codes should be common, according to EPCglobal, the organization creating standards for the electronic product codes carried on RFID tags.


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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.