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RFID Goes to Bat Against Gray Market for DeMarini Sports

A UHF RFID system from Entigral enables the high-end aluminum and composite bat manufacturer to link its products to a particular retailer, thereby tracing any gray-market sale items directly to the store of origin.
By Claire Swedberg
Nov 18, 2015

Sporting goods company DeMarini Sports is employing radio frequency identification technology to track its baseball and softball bats, thereby ensuring the integrity of the supply chain for its high-value products. An ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID solution provided by Entrigal Systems makes it possible for the firm to automatically create a record of each bat's shipment to a specific retailer, so that if the bat turns up listed elsewhere—for instance, for sale on eBay—the company can identify the original retailer to which that item was shipped.

DeMarini sells fastpitch and slowpitch baseball equipment and apparel, including its aluminum and composite bats that typically cost $200 to $500 apiece. The company assembles the bats at its facility in Hillsboro, Ore., and ships approximately 3,000 of them daily to retailers worldwide. The retailers then sell the bats at prices set by DeMarini. At times, however, the bats turn up on eBay or other websites at lower prices.

When shipping a bat to a retailer, DeMarini encodes an RFID label (shown at the bottom of the photo), affixes it to a box and places the bat inside.
"We've been a high-end bat manufacturer for 20 years," says Nate Baldwin, DeMarini's plant manager. "But in the last five years, with the move toward e-commerce, we've had problems with the gray market." Unknown individuals have gotten their hands on the unsold bats, he explains, and have sold them below the manufacturer-advertised price (MAP). That's a problem, he notes—not only for the brand image, but for the stores that must compete with those online sales.

Some of DeMarini's larger retail sellers have complained to the manufacturer, asking them to shut those sales down, but that's not so easy to do. Although DeMarini can purchase the bats off those websites, the company cannot typically determine how the seller received them in the first place.

The company began working with Entrigal this year. In June, it fully launched a solution enabling it to automatically identify each bat, and link each bat's ID number to a particular customer's shipment.

Although RFID would provide a fast, automated method of collecting data about each bat as it shipped, there were some challenges in implementing the technology, says Mark Gemberling, Entrigal's sales and marketing VP.

DeMarini wanted to be able to track each bat individually by incorporating an RFID tag inside that bat. However, most low-cost RFID tags, if placed inside aluminum or composite bats, would be difficult to read due to the RF interference caused by either of these materials, as well as their orientation when the bats are stacked together in large shipments.

In addition, the bats are very carefully engineered to provide the best performance, and the insertion of an RFID tag could interfere with a bat's weight balance. Not only that, Baldwin says, but a tag inside a bat would be subject to extreme conditions based on how hard players swing the bat to hit balls. "We almost gave up," Baldwin says.

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