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Australia's Woolworths Supermarket Chain Studies RFID

The retailer is testing the technology's ability to cost-effectively track produce shipments and monitor temperatures.
By Dave Friedlos
Oct 21, 2008Woolworths Ltd., which operates Australia's largest supermarket chain, has completed two trials of radio frequency identification. One trial employs the technology to track and trace fresh produce as it moves across the supply chain, while the other involves monitoring temperature levels throughout segments of the supply chain.

The retail giant tested UHF EPC Gen 2 tags at selected supermarkets and supplier distribution centers (DCs) to determine the economic viability of a wider rollout. Wayne Ellison, Woolworths' RFID project manager, says the retailer intends to extend its temperature-sensing pilot but has abandoned plans to roll out RFID to track and trace produce crates for now, because it still sees the technology as being too expensive.

Woolworths, which maintains more than 700 Woolworths and Safeway supermarkets, invited a range of technology vendors—including RFID tag suppliers, integration specialists and telecommunication companies—to demonstrate the benefits of RFID. "We held the proof-of-concept stage to see if RFID could provide the benefits we need in the produce department," Ellison says, "using both passive dual-frequency tags and UHF EPC Gen 2 tags."

Woolworths chose passive tags for track and trace because of the high volume of crates involved, as well as the prohibitive cost of utilizing active tags for such a large-scale deployment. The benefits Woolworths sought included improvements in efficiency for tracking fresh produce, which is currently a manual, paper-based process. The retailer, according to Ellison, wanted an electronic means of tracking fresh food, in order to reduce the number of inaccuracies in accounts, improve documentation and reduce paper use.

"Electronic tracking also has the potential to reduce stock wastage by delivering better visibility and control over our stock," Ellison says. Knowing exactly where a crate is located at any particular time can be vital in the fresh-produce industry, he explains, as some foods do not last as long as others, and accurate stock control enables companies to ship fruit before it can spoil.

The retailer set up temporary portals housing RFID antennas and interrogators throughout the distribution chain. Technology vendors were then invited to track and trace fresh produce from the DCs to warehouses and the supermarket. "We created a number of different scenarios to test the effectiveness of RFID in a real-life environment," Ellison says, "such as exposing tags to high water levels, high citrus levels and metal."

For temperature-sensing trials, Woolworths employed UHF EPC Gen 2 tags with built-in sensors to monitor the temperature of produce from the grower through to the DCs, to ensure produce remained at optimum temperatures, thereby reducing spoilage.

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