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Marks & Spencer Leads the Way

The world's largest item-level apparel retail RFID deployment shows the technology's value.
By Mark Roberti
Oct 21, 2013

Marks & Spencer (M&S), the popular British department store chain, is a pioneer in the use of radio frequency identification technology. In 2000, the company began tracking plastic trays carrying food items via high-frequency tags. In 2003, it launched its first trial to determine the benefits of employing ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tags to track individual clothing items, and it created a privacy plan that is still a model for the industry (see U.K. Trial Addresses Privacy Issue).

In 2005, Marks & Spencer decided to roll out a passive UHF system to track 14 types of apparel, each of which came in a wide variety of colors and sizes. In 2012, the company's board of directors approved a plan to track all apparel and general merchandise at all of its 760 stores. So this year, M&S began implementing a program to track bedding and other home goods, as well as kitchenware and beauty products (see Marks & Spencer Rolls Out RFID to All Its Stores).

Last week, Kim Phillips, M&S' head of packaging, spoke at RFID Journal LIVE! Europe. Phillips, who also runs the company's RFID program, said a typical female shopper spends 24 minutes in the women's department, which is not a lot of time to inspire and impress a customer. "RFID is about getting accurate information on the stock position in each store and keeping it accurate," he told the audience. "It's about improving the true availability of sizes and colors. We want to be known as the store in which you can always find your size."

M&S also aims to be an international omnichannel retailer, and RFID will help provide the visibility that will enable this approach (see Omnichannel Retailing and RFID: Omnichannel Superstar). Items are tagged by suppliers in some 200 factories throughout 20 countries. The tags are read only when items arrive at the sales floor. Store associates perform inventory counts every two weeks, using handheld interrogators. The collected data is forwarded to a database developed in-house, and inventory reports are generated that then trigger replenishment. The result, Phillips reported, is more accurate replenishment from distribution centers and better on-shelf availability, which leads to a "proven increase in sales."

The company now wants to extend these benefits to all of its product categories. Phillips said M&S has been working with Avery Dennison to develop new RFID tags for items composed of metal, or that contain high water content, both of which are less RF-friendly. "The technology is changing all the time," he told attendees. "We are working to make metal tags more aesthetically pleasing, not the ones with high sponge backing, and we are finding great advancements."

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