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Observations From NRF's Big Show, Part 1

There was more interest in RFID applications, and solution providers are enhancing their systems so they scale more easily across a chain of stores.
By Mark Roberti
Jan 13, 2015

This week, I attended the National Retail Federation's Big Show, an annual event focused on retail technology. There was noticeably more radio frequency identification technology on display, and the booths of companies such as Avery Dennison, Checkpoint, Impinj, Smartrac Technologies, Tyco Retail Solutions and Zebra Technologies were crowded with attendees eager to learn what is happening with RFID.

In general, attendees were from retailers not yet using RFID, but there was a palpable feeling among them that they are behind and need to start focusing on RFID. I hosted a panel discussion, sponsored by Avery Dennison RBIS, that included Bill Hardgrave, the dean of Auburn University's Harbert College of Business; Francisco Melo, Avery Dennison RBIS' VP of global RFID; Pam Sweeney, Macy's senior VP of logistics systems; and Joe Granato, the director of operations and global initiatives at specialty retailer Lululemon Athletica.

The session was well attended; I noticed that there were a few more people than last year, as well as more retailers. I asked how many were currently using RFID in their operations, and how many had pilots running. Roughly half a dozen hands went up. But the audience was engaged and asked good questions.

Among the RFID companies exhibiting, the focus was clearly on making the technology easier to use and scalable. There were also a lot of "secondary" applications on display. I'll explain that term and talk about those applications in my column next week.

Checkpoint showed an all-in-one table unit that can be used at a distribution center to immediately check if the correct items were shipped by a supplier. A table unit with different software shows an employee in the back of a store which items arriving need to be put out on the floor immediately, and which need to be put away for a customer to pick up. The same system can be used to confirm that an order purchased online has been picked properly. The idea is to simplify routine tasks for store associates so systems can be rolled out and scaled up quickly.

Tyco Retail Solutions unveiled a new version of its TrueVUE software platform, which can link to closed-circuit television cameras to show what was happening when shrinkage occurred. Tyco also showed a new, low-profile Sensormatic RFID antenna that can track a tagged item's movements and general location. And it ported its software to Apple's iOS, so it can run on an iPhone attached to an RFID handheld sled created by Technology Solutions (UK) Ltd. Here, too, the goal is to simplify deployments and make it easier for employees to use RFID applications.

Intel showed off a prototype of a low-cost ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) reader with power-over-Ethernet and an intelligent device that could control multiple readers. The idea is to reduce the cost of installations by eliminating the need to hire an electrician to run power to readers, and to cut the cost of networking the readers so data from multiple readers can be combined, filtered and sent to applications easily and cost-effectively. Intel developed the intellectual property and expects to license it to third parties that will build the readers and the networking devices. The goal is to simplify and reduce the cost of deployments.

What was clear to me as I left the event is that some retailers are moving quickly, and RFID solution providers are enhancing their products to make deployments more scalable. That often means making them easier for store employees to use, or reducing the need for employees to do things differently. While some retailers are pushing the technology to new heights, a lot of others are worrying that they are behind and are looking to catch up.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.

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