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Process Automation: A Key Ingredient of RFID Retail Deployments

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RFID is often called a foundational technology. Without it, you can’t manage complex inventory assortments or profitably fulfill omni-channel orders. Many retailers are implementing RFID to enable real-time inventory reports and dashboards – but RFID and sensor technology reap far greater awards when coupled with process automation.

While reports can be useful, store managers must be actively involved in knowing what’s going on in their stores, and must ensure that real-time inventory information is integrated with store processes.

For example, knowing where retail inventory is located is a helpful timesaver, but it doesn’t go far enough. Without automated processes, store associates may still end up on inefficient scavenger hunts to pick, pack and fulfill omni-channel orders, leaving the door open for a poor customer experience.

Given the fact that stores have an unpredictable number of daily omni-channel orders – it might be three or could be 30 — critical process automation in conjunction with excellent inventory visibility is imperative.

To use a GPS analogy, most consumers wouldn’t settle for a GPS system that merely showed a point on a map. They would want to know how to get there in the most time efficient manner. Store associates need similar tools on their in-store mobile devices.

In fact, many larger stores have already begun integrating inventory, merchandising and product information from multiple systems into mobile apps for store associates. Doing so, they have been able to create to-do lists based upon dynamic inventory movement, allowing them to focus on hot sellers, instead of slow movers. Interestingly, these days, it doesn’t take a large mobile investment for store associates to be given these capabilities. In fact, mobile tools are readily available to automate retail processes.

It’s important to implement these capabilities sooner rather than later.  He who hesitates is lost:

Don’t Wait for Chain-Wide RFID Tagging

One of the biggest mistakes well-meaning retailers make is to assume that everything in the store must RFID tagged, and to do any less isn’t worth the effort. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, that position may prevent retailers from improving their processes and profits immediately.

In fact, reticent retailers should seriously consider employing a mix of older technologies such as barcodes for seasonal and easy-to-find accessories, while using RFID for densely packed/hard-to-find items. Over time, they may wish to RFID tag more of their inventory, but it’s often easier to begin with some bar-coded items as part of a mixed environment.

This will likely be less of an issue in the future as eventually, most apparel will arrive RFID tagged. In fact, at a recent industry conference, GS1Connect, I learned that about half of apparel brands are starting to RFID tags for some merchandise categories and retail partners. So if apparel is already coming into stores RFID-ready, why not initiate the program now within a mixed environment and experience immediate benefits?

Don’t Wait for Enterprise Systems Integration

Connecting RFID to automated processes also avoids inventory silos – and disappointed customers. For example, inventory can and should be connected to loyalty apps so retailers can make useful recommendations and offers based upon in-stock inventory, as well as assortment planning.

But it’s a common misconception that all legacy systems must be fully integrated to benefit from RFID. To create a seamless customer experience, retailers can start by updating their data in existing systems of record with RFID. For example, a customer may be browsing online and want to know what is available in her favorite local store — and what can be shipped to her home. That doesn’t require full system integration, but rather requires that sensor data informs multiple systems.

The good news is that while it may take time to integrate legacy systems, it’s not that difficult for retailers to use sensor data to inform multiple systems at once, whether the systems themselves are fully integrated or not.  Data mapping and web services integration enables retailers to deliver most of what they need immediately: meeting customer expectations and creating efficiencies in their omni-channel operations.

Improving Process Automation

Given these factors, what are the next steps retailers may wish to take to improve their process automation? Consider these three best practices:

– Make it easy for store associates to perform repetitive tasks with in-store mobile devices.   Consider first your core work processes (e.g. omni-channel order fulfillment, shelf replenishment) that are manual and most prone to error.

– Full integration with large systems of record could take months or longer. If that is holding you back, then consider first integrating RFID with mobile devices and existing mobile apps.

– Socialize work processes with employees. Smart store operations and logistics and inventory control store managers have taken to living a “day in the life” of an associate so they can test and refine processes in a real-world environment.

– Set the stage for continuous improvement.  In the dynamic retailing world, it’s important to stay flexible and incorporate change management into store operations.

By looking at RFID as a process enabler, not just a foundational technology, it becomes more apparent the value that automating retail processes adds to the equation. And process automation truly is a necessary step for retailers seeking to maximize the value of their RFID deployments.

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