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Tracking Totes With RFID Gives Co-Op Fast Results

To cut down on theft of high-value items, a U.K. retailer cooperative has adopted RFID-enabled totes to improve shipment visibility.
By Claire Swedberg
Dec 31, 2007The Co-operative Group, the largest customer-owned business co-op in the United Kingdom, has deployed an RFID system to track cigarettes, alcohol and some other types of high-value, theft-prone items sold in its 500 convenience stores around the north of England. The deployment began in October and follows a 2006 pilot project designed to provide a return on investment within six months.

The co-op decided to investigate RFID's ability to improve the visibility of the small shipments it sends in individual boxes—as opposed to the large cartons full of products it ships in large metal cages—to about 500 U.K. convenience stores. These small shipments often get lost due to being either misplaced or stolen as they move across the company's supply chain.


Chris Wright
In 2006, United Co-operatives—another U.K. retailer co-op that has since been amalgamated with The Co-Operative Group—attempted to deter theft of small shipments of valuable goods by sending them in sealed, unmarked plastic tote boxes, rather than in large metal cages in which the product could be more easily seen and identified by potential thieves. However, such totes also went missing—both for the high-priced items thieves recognized as being packed within the totes, and for the totes themselves—often never returning from the retail point.

To remedy this problem, United Co-operatives asked supply chain solution provider Skillweb to provide an RFID-based system that could track each individual tote. Skillweb affixed an ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC Gen 2 RFID tag, made by UPM Raflatac, to each plastic tote at the company's distribution centers in Talke Pits (in Staffordshire) and Bradford. It then encoded each tag with a unique ID number. Virginia-based manufacturer Rehrig provided the totes, which measure 3 feet by 2 feet by 2 feet.

"During the pilot, we had issues with reading the tags, both in-bound, where we were reading bulk numbers of totes, and out-bound, where we were slowing the operators down," says Chris Wright, Skillweb's managing director. "However, success came as the technology itself improved—better readers, better tags and better knowledge of how to tune the system and get maximum benefit from it."

No longer a pilot, the RFID system is fully deployed at the co-op's Talke Pits DC, and the co-op is currently in the process of permanently installing the same system at its Bradford facility, but Wright hopes to see it expand further. "We are currently working with The Co-operative Group to see where and how we might take the solution forward," Wright says, declining to provide specifics.

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