Are we ready to bin the barcode?

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Back in February 2004 we reported that Exel (or DHL as it is now known) was trialling radio frequency identification (RFID) for Selfridges at its Hams Hall national distribution centre.

It seemed like the start of a revolution in stock visibility and, as momentum built, there were even suggestions that the days of the barcode were numbered.

Then it turned out that the tags were very expensive compared to barcodes, the signals were absorbed by liquids, and metal near the tags confused them – all of a sudden, interest seemed to wane.

Of course, these were all solvable problems – and to a large extent have been solved.

Still, I can’t deny a sense of déjà vu when some research from GS1 dropped onto my desktop saying that RFID is about to take off in the UK apparel market.

This is based on a survey by GS1 UK which found that a quarter of the top 20 retailers in the UK – including Marks and Spencer, John Lewis, Tesco F&F, ASDA George and others – are already using RFID tags in their stores. Another 20 per cent are currently trialling, while 15 per cent are investigating their use and are due to pilot the technology in the next few months.

GS1 also quotes figures from research group IDTechEx, which suggests that 10.4 billion tags are expected to be sold this year – and 4.6 billion of them are destined for apparel tagging.

Inventory accuracy is the main reason for exploring RFID according to respondents to the GS1 survey. The use of RFID increases inventory accuracy from 63 per cent to 95 per cent, and results in retailers typically cutting their out-of-stocks by up to 50 per cent. 80-90 per cent time saving is seen when using RFID for stock management.

And it is not just large retailers that are benefiting – smaller companies also see the advantages. GS1 quotes Sam Thompson, IT manager at Gieves & Hawkes, the Savile Row tailor: “RFID technology has been easy to deploy and the store appreciates the benefits it offers. The data generated is useful in managing store stock levels.”

From all of this, it seems clear that RFID is establishing a strong niche in the apparel market. And it seems reasonable to expect further progress in other sectors in the future. But, 12 years on, are we ready to bin the barcode? LOL …


Malory Davies



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