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Why Marks & Spencer Talks About RFID

The U.K retailer believes there are some real benefits to going public about its use of RFID to improve inventory accuracy and the customer experience in stores.
By Mark Roberti
May 15, 2016

I have had the chance to hear Richard Jenkins, Marks & Spencer's head of RFID strategic development, speak several times at our events, and I've spoken to him in casual conversations a few times about the U.K.-based retailer's use of radio frequency identification technology. The more I learn, the more impressed I am with Richard and his company's RFID strategy (see Marks & Spencer Leads the Way and Marks & Spencer Expects to Achieve 100 Percent RFID-Tagging by 2017).

At our recent RFID Journal LIVE! event, held in Orlando, Fla., Richard was on a general-session panel of former RFID Journal Award winners who shared their insights and learnings from having worked on some of the best deployments carried out to date. I asked Richard this question: "You have spoken at this event several times. Isn't there a concern that you are sharing a competitive advantage?"

Richard's answer was—no surprise—intelligent and well-reasoned, so I would like to share it in full. "No," he said. "I'm telling people what we are doing, not how we are doing it. Events like this are very important for us, for a couple of reasons. One is that we need solutions to issues, challenges and opportunities that we, as a business, face. If I don't talk about what we are interested in doing, what we are attempting to achieve, then we give the solution providers a tough time in trying to second-guess what we might want and, therefore, what products and services they should be working on and developing."

That makes perfect sense, but his second point surprised me a little. He said: "I'm expected to have a broad understanding of what the possibilities are [for using RFID in retail operations] and what other retailers are doing…. If we're very tight on what we do—and we say nothing and we share nothing—then why would anyone share with me? Therefore, how would I have the broad industry awareness that I need to influence my internal stakeholders, to persuade them that we should do 'x' or 'y,' because there is already a precedent? Someone is already doing it. They have evaluated it, and it is delivering for them. So why wouldn't we do it?"

I pointed out that if more retailers use RFID, tag prices come down and the technology improves, because solution providers can invest more in research and development to improve their products. Richard concurred, saying: "That's point three."

I bring this up because many companies achieving significant benefits with RFID don't want to say anything about what they are doing because they believe this gives them a competitive advantage. Yet, here is one of the smartest users of RFID talking about the value that the technology delivers. Airbus is another company that has a very sophisticated approach to RFID and frequently discusses the benefits that it is achieving (see Airbus Enters New Phase of RFID Usage, Digitalization and Airbus to RFID-Tag and Track All Parts Made In-House). Carlo Nizam, who led the Airbus effort until a recent promotion, was supposed to be on the award-winners panel but could not attend due to an illness in his family.

I have always believed that it is in the interest of companies benefiting from RFID to talk about their deployments, for the reasons Richard stated so eloquently. Of course, it's partly because RFID Journal would like to publish these stories. Each year at LIVE!, some 50 end users speak about their deployments and answer attendees' questions. We publish many more news stories and case studies on our website.

Technology provides a short-term competitive advantage to early adopters, but innovative companies keep innovating and finding new ways in which to use new and existing technologies to greater advantage. "Deploy and forget" is not a successful strategy, because even if you keep mum, your competitors will eventually deploy the same technology and catch up with you.

I don't think any company fully reveals all of the benefits it achieves from using RFID (or any other new technology), nor do businesses share all of the ways in which they are using or plan to use RFID. But by sharing some of the things they are doing—and not simply defaulting to saying nothing all the time—smart companies can shape the technology in ways that benefit them, and learn from others to improve their own businesses. I encourage more companies to take this intelligent, forward-thinking approach to RFID adoption.

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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