The Network Effect

The Network Effect

Wal-Mart’s new push to require its top 100 suppliers to use RFID tags on cases and pallettes of consumer goods shipped to its distribution centers and stores by January 2005 will give the sensor technology its first broad, real-world test. There are cost, technology and privacy concerns related to the broader use of these sensors, but Wal-Mart’s mandate represents a commitment to work out the kinks.

On June 11, Linda Dillman dropped a bomb on the retail industry. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s CIO announced that, as of January 2005, the world’s largest retailer would require its top 100 suppliers to put radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on all pallets and cases they ship to its distribution centers and stores. The news sent suppliers and competitors scrambling to learn about the wireless technology, which enables companies to identify and track items in the supply chain automatically.

Then less than a month after Dillman’s bombshell, just as executives were beginning to grasp what it would mean for the retail industry and for suppliers, news reports revealed that Wal-Mart had cancelled a “smart-shelf” trial with The Gillette Co. The trial would have used RFID technology to monitor how many razor blades were on a store shelf in Brockton, Mass. Many media stories took this to mean that Wal-Mart was backing off its commitment to deploy RFID in stores because of concerns raised by privacy advocates.

Wal-Mart declined to comment on why it pulled the smart-shelf test. But deploying RFID in stores has never been a top priority for the retailer. In fact, Wal-Mart had delayed the trial numerous times since January, to the frustration of Gillette executives.

The trial was conceived as an experiment to see what kind of real-time information could be gathered so that Wal-Mart and Gillette could begin to figure out how to use the data. Both companies knew it would not be economically viable to deploy the technology widely in stores for several more years (see “The Cost of Being Smart,” page 68). And Wal-Mart didn’t want to disrupt its in-store operations. Even a small test of the smart shelf would require resources to support the technology and personnel to make sure the test boxes and regular boxes, which look alike, didn’t get intermingled.

Did negative press reports about the potential of using RFID to track consumers’ actions play a role? Again, Wal-Mart would not comment on this. But it’s quite possible that the conservative company didn’t want to risk the ire of privacy advocates over a trial that wasn’t critically important.

But the cancellation of the trial in no way undermined Wal-Mart’s commitment to RFID. To stem confusion in the industry, Wal-Mart hastily sent a letter to its suppliers letting them know that the retailer remained committed to tracking pallets and cases with RFID technology beginning in 2005. Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Williams said the company wants to devote its attention to its ambitious plan. “By 2006, we will roll it out with all suppliers,” says Williams.

Industry experts believe that, given the huge commitment of IT and operational resources necessary to fulfill its mandate, Wal-Mart could not afford to be distracted by a smart-shelf test that wouldn’t reap any immediate benefits. Edward Rerisi, director of research at Allied Business Intelligence Inc., a market research company that focuses on wireless technologies, says he doesn’t believe “anyone should read anything into” Wal-Mart’s decision to back out of the smart-shelf pilot. “It was two separate applications, two separate projects,” says Rerisi. “You can’t evaluate them in the same light.”

For the past two-and-a-half years, Wal-Mart has been working with the Auto-ID Center, a nonprofit research organization based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to develop and test RFID technology that will allow companies to track goods using a universal Electronic Product Code (EPC). The Auto-ID Center’s long-term vision is for companies to use smart shelves to monitor how many items are on each shelf. When inventory is low, software would signal a store manager that, say, more Tide detergent or Kellogg’s Corn Flakes needs to be brought from the storeroom. Readers in the storeroom would monitor inventory and alert the distribution center when more product is needed, and so on back through the supply chain. But Wal-Mart and other sponsors of the Auto-ID Center have always envisioned that it might take as long as ten years before RFID tags would become inexpensive enough to put on individual items in stores.

Many questions remain about how RFID technology will be deployed, such as what information will be shared between Wal-Mart and its many suppliers, and how companies will track goods with both bar codes and RFID tags during the transition period. But Wal-Mart is moving to deploy it at the pallet and case level, even before all the answers are known, because the technology has the capability to improve efficiency, cut costs and boost sales.

Dillman’s announcement caught many competitors and suppliers off guard. RFID has been used successfully in closed-loop supply chains, where a retailer, such as Britain’s Marks & Spencer Group, sells everything under its own brand. But most people thought the proposed EPC standard, which won’t be formally introduced until this month, was still too new and too immature to be adopted in open supply chains. At a recent trade association meeting for consumer products manufacturers, suppliers were concerned about just how much time they have to comply. “Wal-Mart plans to hold a gathering for suppliers in November, but that leaves us less than a year to do this. We won’t want to deploy new technologies in November and December, because that’s the big selling season,” says a senior executive at one of Wal-Mart’s largest suppliers, who asked not to be identified.

The importance of Wal-Mart’s decision is hard to overestimate. “You can count on one hand the number of retailers big enough to force a whole industry to adopt a new technology within a constrained amount of time,” John Fontanella, vice president of research at AMR Research wrote in a recent report. “Wal-Mart is biggest of them all.”

Many people now expect RFID use at the pallet and case level to take off rapidly because of something economists call the “network effect,” which basically says that the more people use a physical network (say, the Internet) or shared service (eBay), the more valuable it becomes. That encourages even more people to use the network, creating exponential growth.

The Wal-Mart RFID mandate means its top 100 suppliers not only have to put tags on pallets and cases, they must also install RFID readers in their manufacturing facilities, warehouses and distribution centers. They, in turn, can require their suppliers to tag shipments and so on through the supply chain. Since Wal-Mart sells auto parts, clothes, groceries, pharmaceuticals and entertainment products, the network can quickly spread to many industries. And as more suppliers adopt the technology, it will make more sense for other retailers to take advantage of RFID, which will drive down the cost of tags and readers, encouraging still more companies to jump in.

Today, RFID tags cost anywhere from 40 cents to a dollar, depending on the size of an order and the features of the tag (amount of memory, whether it is read-only or read-write and so on). This cost will be borne by Wal-Mart’s suppliers. Could they refuse to comply with the retailer’s demands? “You can’t do that if 10 percent to 40 percent of your business is going through Wal-Mart,” says Pete Abell, cofounder of the ePC Group Ltd., an independent consulting company, and the former head of AMR Research’s retail practice. And Wal-Mart’s Dillman has said that companies that don’t comply will be fined.

Wal-Mart is unlikely to back off its requirement, because the retailer is convinced the benefits are huge. Financial analysts agree. Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., a New York investment research house, estimates that Wal-Mart could save nearly $8.4 billion per year when RFID is fully deployed throughout its supply chain and in stores.

With those kinds of benefits in sight, it’s not hard to understand why the retailer is pushing ahead so aggressively. The ePC Group’s Abell says that in the mid-1980s, when most grocery stores were rolling out bar code technology slowly, Wal-Mart dispatched 70 teams to install scanners in its stores as quickly as possible. And he expects the retailer to do the same with RFID for its supply chain. “They understood that the sooner you got the stores up, the sooner you got the benefits,” says Abell. “I see the same thing happening now with EPC technology.”

Wal-Mart has been studying the potential of RFID for more than 12 years. It has a facility in Rogers, Ark., in which it tests tags and readers from various vendors and studies how the performance of these products is affected by the environments in its distribution centers and storerooms. Wal-Mart will explain to its suppliers what they need to do to fulfill the retailer’s requirements, but after that, they’re on their own.

Competitors and suppliers who are just beginning to look at this technology have a huge task in front of them if they want to be fast followers behind the leaders. RFID is not a simple plug-and-play technology. It has improved a great deal with the advent of UHF tags. But while UHF waves can pass through cardboard and paper packaging, they bounce off metal, creating false or failed reads, and they are absorbed by water.

A supplier can’t simply slap a smart label—one with an RFID tag embedded in it—on 60 cases of coffee cans, stack the cases randomly on a pallet and read every tag as a forklift carries the pallet through a dock door at five miles per hour. Retailers are going to have to figure out sensible solutions for hundreds of products with high water content or that are made of metal. And suppliers may have to follow different compliance requirements for different retailers. Solutions might include using a specific type of tag, placing the tag in a precise location on the case and arranging the cases in a special configuration on a pallet.

The changes wrought by RFID systems will affect virtually everyone in the company—from the forklift operator to the head of logistics—but perhaps none more than those in the IT department. The whole point of using RFID is to enable companies to gather real-time data automatically. The challenge will be to figure out ways to filter, use and share that data.

EPC tags contain only a serial number. That means for the tags to be of any value, suppliers will have to create a database that contains information about what the item is, where it was made, what its expiration date is. Retailers will need to figure out exactly what information they need, what format it should be in and how it should be shared. Retailers and suppliers will have to work together to solve these issues.

And it’s not clear how companies will transition from the universal product code incorporated in bar codes to EPC tags. The Uniform Code Council Inc., which manages the UPC and has taken responsibility for commercializing EPC technology, has not spelled out a clear migration path for retailers, suppliers and software vendors. Bernie Hogan, the UCC’s chief technology officer, says the organization has a draft road map. But it wants to work through some actual deployments with companies, such as Wal-Mart, to fine-tune its road map before making it public.

Once a road map is published, software vendors will have to create new fields to cope with the data. Many companies, including Manhattan Associates Inc., Provia Software Inc., RedPrairie Corp. and SAP, are adding software modules or upgrading their products to cope with the serial numbers in RFID tags. But these solutions still require suppliers and retailers to deploy middleware that manages the huge amount of data coming from the readers. CIOs will have to devise ways to filter out false or redundant reads and pass on only useful information to enterprise applications. And they’ll have to work with line managers more closely than ever to shape these systems. For instance, IT and business managers will have to figure out when inventory in the storeroom or warehouse needs to be replenished. Set the trigger too low and you’ll run out of product; set it too high and you’ll wind up with excess inventory.

CIOs at retail companies also will have to work with their counterparts in their supply base to find ways to get product to the stores before the stores are sold out of an item. Studies show that products are out of stock in the grocery and mass-merchandise sector an average of 7 percent of the time. Procter & Gamble Co. has commissioned research that reveals that out-of-stocks on some fast-moving items can be as high as 17 percent.

As Wal-Mart pushes forward with RFID technology, the network effect is likely to spread quickly. If P&G is tagging pallets and cases for Wal-Mart, it’s not difficult for P&G to do the same for Target Corp. and other retail partners. That provides incentives for other retailers to follow Wal-Mart’s lead.

And the benefits of RFID won’t be limited to the retail and consumer goods industries. Wal-Mart is the world’s largest tire retailer. The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability, and Documentation (TREAD) Act requires automakers to be able to uniquely identify tires on cars from the 2004 model year, so the tires can be recalled more effectively. If Wal-Mart uses EPC tags on tires, it would make sense for automakers to use the same tags, which will be less expensive than specialized tags produced in much smaller volumes.

As more companies adopt the technology, the price of RFID tags and readers will drop sharply and all kinds of new applications will become economically viable. Manufacturers will be able to put tags on parts to enable them to more efficiently customize their products. Pharmaceutical companies will be able to ensure that their drug products are not counterfeited. Farm products will be tracked from the stable to the table, ensuring freshness and the ability to quickly recall tainted meat. The improvement in productivity will dwarf the gains seen during the Internet era. But given the complexity of implementing this technology, companies that don’t move quickly will wind up at a severe competitive disadvantage.

Mark Roberti is founder and editor of RFID Journal, an independent Web site that covers business applications of RFID technology.

The Bottom Line

The ability to know where every item is in the supply chain and store could save retailers billions of dollars per year. Here’s an estimate of what Wal-Mart might save annually when RFID technology is deployed throughout its operations.

$6.7 Billion: Eliminating the need to have people scan bar codes on pallets and cases in the supply chain and on items in the store

reduces labor costs by 15 percent.

$600 Million: Even with the most efficient supply chain on earth, Wal-Mart suffers out-of-stocks. The company boosts its bottom line by using smart shelves to monitor on-shelf availability.

$575 Million:Knowing where products are at all times makes it harder

for employees to steal goods from warehouses. Scanning products automatically reduces administrative error and vendor fraud.

$300 Million: Better tracking of the more than 1 billion pallets and cases that move through its distribution centers each year produces significant savings.

$180 Million: Improved visibility of what products are in the supply chain-in its own distribution centers and its suppliers’ warehouses-lets Wal-Mart reduce its inventory and the annual cost of carrying that inventory.

$8.35 Billion: Total pre-tax saving is higher than the total revenue of more than half the companies on the Fortune 500.


RFID Handbook

By Klaus Finkenzeller with Rachel Waddington John Wiley & Sons, 2003

Web Sites technologies/rfid

Site of the Association for Automatic Identification and Data Capture Technologies

Auto-ID Center

RFID Journal

Copyright © 2003 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in CIO Insight.