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Three tips for deploying RFID across retail chains

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After implementing RFID solutions in the aerospace, industrial manufacturing, energy and healthcare sectors, it is apparent that the supply chains in each sector share many similarities despite their individual complexities.

Retail deployments have unique complexities of their own: distributed operations spread across thousands of locations, high volumes of inventory, frequent product introductions, multiple store format variations and a variable work force, just to name a few.

I’ve found that when deploying RFID across retail chains, it’s important to keep the following factors in mind.

Deployment Speed 

All industries have seasonality, but in retail, sales figures are disproportionately high at the end of the calendar year. In North America, IT projects are generally frozen between the back-to-school season and the holiday shopping season to allow retail outlets to perform at peak efficiency. As a retail IT provider, we are bound to test and deploy any new technology earlier in the year, and to do it quickly. As a result, we have implemented RFID at the rate of over 100 stores a week in order to meet tight deadlines.

Peg Kastner, Vice President of Client Services at OATSystems

Since retail is a customer-facing, often 24/7 environment, it’s important to minimize disruption as much as possible. As a result, most retailers have limited maintenance windows for IT deployment. Pre-planning at the start of a project and preconfiguring and pre-staging RFID hardware, software and use cases ahead of time enables us to work within a retailer’s maintenance window, even if it is only a few hours in the middle of the night.

Process and Data Compliance 

As RFID adoption takes hold in retail, RFID handheld devices are proliferating in retail stores for cycle counting inventory. If you take into account the size of retail chains and the number of store associates they employ, a retailer might have thousands or tens of thousands of devices to manage. The data from those devices needs to be accurate, complete, consolidated by store and integrated into the system of record.

Without process and data compliance, fragmented data from handheld devices can have a negative impact on inventory accuracy. We spend a great deal of time up front understanding existing store processes, store associate training and data management to ensure inventory accuracy downstream. Since the top priority of store associates is serving customers, it’s important to show them how RFID makes their job easier, not more difficult.

If store operations understands that performing cycle counts for a few minutes per day can save hours of time later when they are looking for something in the backroom for a customer, they are more likely to use the system. We also implement compliance alerts in the system to enable daily processes and inventory accuracy to stay on track. If inventory is missed in a critical category during a cycle count, we want the store manager to know right away so they can capture that information in the system.

Variation in Store Formats

In order to get full value from RFID, retailers need to apply the technology where it is most impactful to sales and profits. This means deploying RFID at a cluster of high-volume stores, flagship stores, or an entire region to start, before implementing the solution chain-wide. When deploying RFID across more than 25 stores, there are bound to be significant variations in store format. Sometimes RFID hardware installation requires specialized construction and shielding. Often, software needs to be tuned to optimize RFID reads at wide doorways, or at unusually shaped entrances. In one retail case in Europe, we rolled out RFID in 18 countries, with completely different formats for each region. We need to take this into account and conduct site surveys beforehand to ensure a smooth deployment.

I have touched on three important considerations for RFID retail deployments (there are many more), but they all have a common thread. Successful RFID deployments are based on meticulously detailed upfront planning, and focusing on business outcomes with key stakeholders.

Peg Kastner is Vice President of Client Services at OATSystems, a division of Checkpoint Systems and runs global professional services and consulting for the company. She has directed more than 100 RFID deployments in retail, industrial manufacturing, aerospace and healthcare.

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