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Apparel Edges Toward the Tipping Point

This year, more retailers announced plans to introduce or expand item-level RFID initiatives, bringing the sector closer to the critical mass needed to propel industrywide adoption.
By Mark Roberti
Jan 06, 2015

The year began with an announcement from Kohl's, a leading U.S. department store chain, that it was using radio frequency identification to manage inventory of footwear, denim and men's basics across all its stores and distribution centers. New RFID apparel retail deployments are being announced monthly, indicating that the sector is moving toward a tipping point.

While the pace of deployments is accelerating, how long will it take for apparel retail to reach critical mass? It's difficult to say. The following five conditions must be met for a new technology to reach mass adoption, according to Geoffrey Moore's well-established technology adoption life-cycle model:

Photo: iStockphoto
1. A global technology standard
2. A problem no other technology can solve
3. The "whole" product
4. A technology "gorilla"
5. And a critical mass of users

In retail apparel, there is consensus that passive ultrahigh-frequency RFID based on the EPC Gen 2 standard is the technology to employ. No other technology can cost-effectively solve the problem of inaccurate and poorly maintained inventory. There is not yet a "whole product," at least in the way Moore means. You can buy tags, readers and software from one or more vendors, but each deployment is still customized.

One company has not emerged as a "gorilla," Moore's term for a dominant player. Checkpoint Systems, Tyco Retail Solutions, Xterprise/SML and several other RFID providers are each winning some projects. Over time, retailers will likely embrace one solution over the others and the vendor of that solution will emerge as the gorilla, with the largest market share.

Known Unknowns
Each new customer win by an RFID provider takes that company closer to gorilla status and the market closer to critical mass. But there are still some "known unknowns"—that is, information we know we don't know that is needed to predict when critical mass might be reached.

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