Last week I gave Business students at Turku University a guest lecture on the use of barcode and RFID technologies in Retail Operations. The students asked what people unfamiliar with RFID technology often ask - hence I thought the topic is worth a blog.
Although a commonly asked question, I will not discuss price or
costs. This is due to the fact that the topic would earn its own
blog post and it has been discussed on the RFID Arena widely. If
you are interested in cost, please read for instance:
On ROI calculation
On tag price
MOST COMMONLY ASKED QUESTIONS
1. The difference in the label
Typically a barcode label carries the barcode information as
well as information for the consumer (e.g. product attributes such
as price, size, name etc). The same information could and usually
is found in an RFID label with the addition of an electronic
element: the tag. So the label itself often looks exactly the same
− for example a swing ticket or a price tag or even a care
label. The embedded RFID tag makes it possible to save the same (or
more) information electronically.
Very simply said, the main two benefits that RFID has over
- RFID tags include a unique code, which makes every RFID label
individual, meaning that each item can be recognized as an
individual instead of just recognizing a product type.
- As RFID works on radio, no visible contact is needed in order
to read the code. This makes it possible to read many codes
simultaniously from afar without the need to open boxes.
2. "If every RFID tag is individual, does
it mean that my ERP system will have tens of thousands of new
Most people still work based on their original coding system. So
let's assume that a pink t-shirt size S is understood by the system
as code 123456 and a pink t-shirt by the same manufacturer but in
size M is understood by the system as code 123457. And if we looked
at the stock count for the size S, we would search the code 123456
and get the count.
In the RFID world all the pink t-shirts size S would still be
marked with code 123456, but also include a unique identifier. To
simplify, you could have 123456-1, 123456-2 etc and the RFID
readers would make sense of whatever comes after - . The individual
codes can be stored in a database, but when utilizing the
information, the codes are typically decoded to their "traditional
3. "It has been said that boxes no longer
need to be opened for goods receiving purposes. How can we be sure
that all items were really read if we cannot see them? "
Typically there is some knowledge of what should be inside of a
box. For example a packing list, EDI notice or a corresponding
order. In order to be 100% sure that all items were really
recognized it would be advisable to refer to the original document
- typically this would be called an "expect list". The RFID reader
would have an expect list against which it will verify the content
of the box.
A word of advice: when having several boxes delivered a day, it
is impossible to say which box has been read, especially when they
are stacked in a pile. A printed barcode on the side of each box
will help the staff operating the units inform the backend system
which individual boxes to read. The box can be identified and the
content will be scanned against an expect list. Thus the mobile
reader might read items from adjoining boxes but ignores those, as
they are not on the expect list. This is not a necessity, but
speeds things up further.
4. "Can I press a button and get the stock
count of all items in my store?"
Yes, you can have a system that automatically follows all items
in a location. It can unfortunately still be a bit tricky and
costly to use it. Therefore in most cases retailers have chosen to
use a combination of fixed and mobile RFID readers for getting the
stock count of their items.
RFID technology makes it possible to count a store very fast -
for example at Gerry Weber they make a stock count in 20 minutes.
The average count speed with RFID is 25 000 items / hour
whereas with traditional barcode scanning we are talking about
roughly 250 items / h.
RFID count is 100 times
as fast as a barcode count.
5. "One of our most common problems is
related to double-read of barcodes - two employees will read and
register the same items causing inaccuracies to stock. Can we use
automatic RFID gates to prevent this?"
The cure in this case lies in RFID technology itself, not so
much in the "non-human" touch. Automatic RFID gates can be used,
but they are not suitable everywhere.
When RFID tags are read with a mobile or a fixed reader it is
possible to time-stamp the reading. Additionally, as each item now
is unique, the system will know that the same individual has been
seen twice within 10 minutes for instance. When dealing with the
same stock take session, the individual would of course be
registered only once, no matter how many readers have seen it. It
would only verify that the item was really there.
6. "Obviously huge department stores and
retail chains have systems ready for things like this, but what
about a retailer with some 50 stores, how much will their IT-system
need to change? "
Practically in all cases some tailoring will be needed. However,
in most cases it is possible to use some sort of conversion from
RFID to traditional barcode, so that all RFID information would be
offered by a service provider on a cloud service for example. This
allows the retailer to get the best out of RFID technology without
re-doing the whole IT-system immediately. This scenario would work
well for the transition period for example.