Marks & Spencer moves forward with clothes-tracking pilot

RFID a fit for garment tracking: Marks & Spencer moves forward with clothes-tracking pilot

Brian Albright

London-based retailer Marks & Spencer is piloting an item-level radio frequency identification (RFID) tracking system at its High Wycombe, England, store.

Marks & Spencer is using RFID tags to track menswear, taking inventory with mobile RFID readers. The goal is to reduce safety stock and improve order forecasts for the more than 350 million garments it moves through its stores every year.

Paxar Corp., White Plains, N.Y., is supplying the tags, which use chips from Swatch subsidiary EM Microelectronic, Switzerland. The 64-bit, 868MHz UHF tags are encoded with a unique identifier associated with a catalog number. UK integrator Intellident Ltd., Manchester, England, which orchestrated the retailer’s successful frozen food RFID tracking system, is providing the scanner technology.

According to Marks & Spencer spokesperson Liz Freeborn, the company will tag 10,000 men’s suits, shirts and ties for the four-week trial, at a cost of around 50 cents per tag. Items will be tagged at the distribution center prior to delivery to the store and scanned by store staff using custom-built, hand-held readers. SAMSys Technologies Inc. is providing both the fixed and mobile readers. Freeborn says an implementation schedule won’t be established until results of the trial are analyzed.

The garment tracking application was first announced in April.

Freeborn also confirmed that the company had consulted with consumer advocacy group CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) before starting the pilot. CASPIAN has been lobbying against item-level RFID tagging all year, fearing such technology could compromise consumer privacy.

Marks & Spencer seems to have taken these concerns to heart. The tags in the trial are not sewn into garments and can easily be removed at the point of sale. There will also be no active tag reading during the store’s hours of operation (inventory will be taken in the evening), and tag data won’t be linked to customer information.

Marks & Spencer has already rolled out several million tags in a system that tracks reusable trays of frozen food. That system, which uses tags from Texas Instruments RFid, has reduced data collection time by 83% at the distribution center, which has lead to a 15% growth in distributed volume, per year. More than 100 suppliers are working with Marks & Spencer on this program, which is one of the most successful RFID supply chain implementations in the world.

A report from Boston-based AMR Research Inc. said Marks & Spencer estimated it would save $31.8 million in two years, and possibly increase sales 1% through improved stock accuracy with the garment tracking system. Freeborn, however, said that the company has never released any specific figures.

“In fact, it is far too early to talk about savings,” Freeborn said. “We have only just started testing the technology to see whether it actually works in the store environment.”

Estra! Extra

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