Understanding the RFID Renaissance (Part One)


We wanted to find out exactly what is driving the recent growth in RFID in retail. ChainLink surveyed over 120 retailers to find out which use cases are being implemented and which are actually delivering value (where’s the ROI), what strategic goals retailers are trying to realize, and what important lessons could be learned from the current wave of implementations, particularly about why RFID projects succeed or stall.


(This article is excerpted from our new research report, “The ROI for RFID in Retail: Use Cases Driving the Current Surge in RFID Adoption.” For a complimentary copy of that report, please click here.)

Over the past few years we’ve witnessed a resurgence of interest and substantial growth in the use of RFID in retail — a veritable RFID Renaissance — with well over a billion tags used this year, not just in apparel but for other categories and uses as well. It is being used in some truly innovative and high-value ways. In fact, there are many different potential ways to use RFID in retail, but a real dearth of solid data on what specifically is being done in actual implementations.

We wanted to find out exactly what is driving this new surge of interest. Which use cases are being implemented? Which of these use cases have the potential to deliver the most value and what best practices ensure that value is actually realized? What is planned for the near future? What strategic goals are retailers trying to realize? What can others learn from the current wave of implementations? To find answers to these questions and draw a clearer picture of exactly what is happening with RFID in retail, ChainLink surveyed and interviewed over 120 retailers, primarily headquartered in North America and Europe, but many with a global retail footprint. From this research, we learned some important lessons on why RFID projects succeed or stall. These lessons and more are shared in this paper.

Why Are Retailers Adopting RFID Now?

RFID technology has made huge strides. The retail user community has conducted pilots, learned many lessons, and identified strong use cases. Standards have been established to create interoperability across the supply chain. RFID technology performance has improved greatly while at the same time costs have come down dramatically — item-level tag costs are about a fifth of what they cost in the early 2000s. The technology promises new insights as retailers transform their business operations. To find out what is driving the current wave of adoption, we asked retailers for their three top reasons for implementing RFID now (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Key Reasons for Implementing RFID

By a wide margin, the top reason for implementing RFID is to Improve Inventory Accuracy. This makes sense, since improved inventory accuracy is central to driving sales uplift and many of the other benefits and goals for RFID. Let’s break down how this works: RFID enables cycle counting to be done about 25 times faster than traditional manual bar code scanning. Frequent, accurate cycle counting improves inventory accuracy, typically by 20% – 30%, allowing a number of retailers to achieve 99% inventory accuracy. This enables replenishment alerts to be reliably generated, increasing on-floor availability and decreasing out-of-stocks, typically by 15%-30%. This in turn results in sales uplift in the range of 1% to 10% or more for those categories.

The resulting increase in sales is the fundamental core financial driver of most RFID implementations in retail and illustrates the central importance of improving inventory accuracy and reducing OOS. The dominance of this particular driver for RFID implementations is even more pronounced when you consider that three of the answers to our question in Figure 1 are just different aspects of the same core driver: inventory accuracy, reduced out-of-stocks (OOS), and increased on-floor availability. When added together, these encompass the prime reason retailers implement RFID.

What Are Retailers Using RFID For?

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

We asked retailers what they are using or planning to use RFID for (see Figure 2 below). At first blush, this data appears to tell a different story from Figure 1, since Loss Prevention in Stores was selected as the most common planned use of RFID. However, we caution against interpreting the results from this question to mean that Loss Prevention is the primary driver of most RFID implementations. For this question, rather than forcing respondents to rank their priorities (as we did in Figure 1), we asked them to simply check ‘all that apply.’ Based on the responses to all the other survey questions and our interviews, we conclude that the use of RFID for Loss Prevention, while popular, is in most cases being used in combination with an inventory/replenishment application. The relative importance of inventory-based RFID applications is also supported by the data in Figure 2, where Item-level Replenishment from Backstock and Cycle Counting in Stores are practically tied with Loss Prevention as the most widespread use of RFID. With the exception of some very high-value products (e.g. jewelry), it is not common for RFID implementations to be justified on the basis of loss prevention alone.

In fact, this is a fairly common pattern we’ve seen: RFID is justified based on the ROI for a prime use case (which is typically inventory accuracy, driving reduced OOS and increased sales) — then, once the retailer is doing RFID anyway, they explore other possible uses and benefits. Loss Prevention is the most common among those other possible uses, but there are many others as well. Supply chain uses are almost as popular as LP: RFID in the DC to verify goods receipt, pick, pack, and ship was selected by over 40%, and over one third of respondents are tracking goods from the source.

Figure 2 – Current Use Cases for RFID

As we look further down the list at the wide variety of use cases, it is important to consider there are many types of retailers, store formats, operational models, and product categories, each combination having different use cases that make the most sense for them. Nearly a third of respondents are using RFID for both in-store fulfillment and to let store associates check on item availability, location, price, and other information. That shows that RFID can be an important component of an Omni-Channel program (more on this below). Also of note, though source tagging is increasingly common, a surprising number of retailers (nearly 25%) are still tagging in the store.

Product authentication, selected by just over 20% of respondents, is primarily the domain of luxury goods, such as high-end handbags. A few private label retailers are using RFID for sample management to try and streamline and compress the upfront development process. In addition, private label retailers are more likely to do source-to-store tracking using RFID.

Display and promotion management, home delivery, and using RFID for warranty have seen some piloting, but few widespread implementations. Using RFID for home delivery is being explored by ecommerce providers, especially for large complex deliveries requiring onsite assembly and installation, in order to ensure accurate picking and optimized logistics processes such as precise truck loading sequence and delivery confirmations. Customer experience applications of RFID, such as Smart Mirrors or Kiosks, have gotten their share of media buzz but are seeing very little adoption to date.

In Part two we examine how the ROI is realized (mainly from sales uplift by reduction of out-of-stocks) and the ancillary role of other business uses of RFID such as for loss prevention, supply chain, omni-channel, and customer experience.

(This article is excerpted from our new research report, “The ROI for RFID in Retail: Use Cases Driving the Current Surge in RFID Adoption.” For a complimentary copy of that report, please click here.)

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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