RFID handheld readers are proliferating in retail stores for inventory management and customer service applications. But as the number of RFID (and IoT) devices continue to grow, retail IT, operations and supply chain functions are beginning to struggle with managing hundreds — sometimes thousands — of readers in their operations.
One option they are exploring is the use of hands-free RFID solutions. Although hands-free solutions are relatively new in retail, Checkpoint Systems started installing them years ago for our industrial manufacturing customers, as operations and IT departments leaders requested greater control over RFID devices – and RFID data. Today, they are being adopted by a growing number of retailers as well.
So how does a retailer choose one RFID option over the other? The reality is that choosing between handheld and hands-free solutions can be complicated. In this article we discuss different deployment scenarios to help you evaluate the best fit for your business.
Handheld Readers: Pros, Cons and Recommendations
Handheld readers are inexpensive to deploy and are becoming even more cost effective as RFID sleds for existing smartphones become more readily available. Store associates see them as familiar extensions to their smartphones or tablets. They are tangible, reliable and easy to configure. Handheld readers are a good choice for retailers with strong store operations compliance, systematic inventory management, and effective merchandising and planning processes in place. They are also helpful for RFID pilots and new deployments.
That said, the ease of use for RFID handheld readers can be deceiving, because it is tempting to skimp on training, compliance or systems integration when a solution is perceived as “just another smartphone app.” There’s also a tendency to downplay the impact on store operations, because associates who don’t understand the big picture may treat cycle counting as a dreaded daily chore. Even when cycle counting is a necessary exercise once a year, just because it’s faster, doesn’t make it any more welcome.
Recommendations: When deploying handheld readers, it’s important to educate stakeholders at all levels on the positive impact of RFID on customer satisfaction and sales, and how it can make daily store operations tasks (such as receiving, restocking, omni-channel fulfillment, processing returns) faster and easier. Include store associate training, as well as data and process compliance, as part of the implementation plan. Select a software platform with task management integration so that cycle counting becomes just another task along with merchandising, order fulfillment and other daily activities. Doing so makes it part of a store’s daily rhythm. Enable system-driven alerts to store managers about potential compliance errors to ensure data integrity and consistency. Finally, consider hands-free systems as a supplement or alternative to handheld readers, as discussed further below.
Hands-Free Systems: Pros, Cons and Recommendations
Hands-free RFID is defined as any RFID reader that is not handheld or dependent on a store associate for daily operation. This can range from RFID fixed readers at transition points in a store to an always-on zonal system that automatically and constantly reads store inventory without human intervention. It can even include RFID systems configured for high-volume manufacturing, and DC operations that read and encode nearly 100 items a second on a conveyor belt as they pass by.
RFID fixed readers are a cost effective way to track inventory movements at key transition points in stores, such as the receiving dock, at the point of exit, between the back room and sales floor, at the point of sale, in fitting rooms or high-turnover areas.
RFID zonal systems are used in situations where there is no obvious transition point, and provide always-on inventory visibility. They must be carefully configured to provide system and process alerts for store operations and may need to be reconfigured when merchandise categories are moved to different areas within the store.
The startup price for a zonal system is generally based on the precision of location data required and the size of the store, or the area within the store to be outfitted. It’s also important to note that hands-free doesn’t mean low or no maintenance. Monitoring tools need to be in place to ensure the system is online and operating correctly. The volume of data from a zonal system is significantly higher than fixed readers or handhelds.
Recommendations: Employ enterprise device management to ensure all devices are online and transmitting data. Configure business rules and set up a dry run to test assumptions. This is crucial, for example, because when configuring business rules, it is easy to mark every event as “important” and overwhelm store operations with too many alerts. It’s critical to have a scalable platform in place that is capable of handling high volumes of data, particularly for zonal systems.
In addition to putting a data and device management platform in place, it’s important to work with a partner that has business process management expertise as well as proven experience and references in deploying hands-free systems. For hands free systems, a site survey is essential to the planning process, since system tuning (hardware and software), shielding, and possibly even new construction may be required.
The Hybrid Model: Pros, Cons and Recommendations
We’re seeing retailers increasingly use a combination of handheld and hands-free devices. The retailer may use fixed readers at obvious transition points or zonal systems for always-on inventory monitoring, while using handhelds for customer service – to find an item for a customer or for omni-channel fulfillment — and for inventory counts or audits.
Recommendations: The hybrid approach of handheld and hands-free systems can provide the right balance of price and performance for many retailers. As hands-free systems become more prevalent in retail, the cost for these hybrid systems will become even more competitive. A scalable platform that can work with the different methods of RFID data collection available today, and will support data from future sensors and devices, is the necessary foundation for a successful deployment.
In the end, each retailer must evaluate its own needs before selecting an RFID reader strategy. But it should be reassuring to know, at least, that a hybrid option negates the need for an either/or approach and offers best-of-both-world benefits for many.
Vikram Parvataneni is Senior Director of RFID Client Solutions at Checkpoint Systems. He has served as trusted advisor, planning consultant, solution architect and program manager for over 50 handheld and hands-free deployments in supply chain, retail and manufacturing.