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Marks & Spencer to Expand RFID Item Tagging

UK retailer Marks & Spencer is expanding its successful RFID garment-tracking system from 42 to 120 stores starting in the spring of 2007. The company is using the technology to improve stock accuracy and forecasting.
Nov 15, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

November 15, 2006—UK retailer Marks & Spencer will extend its item-level RFID tagging deployment from 42 to 120 stores next spring. The company has tracked clothing with RFID in its distribution centers and in stores since 2003.

The garment-tracking system will include "size-complex items such as suits, casuals and separates," said a Marks & Spencer (M&S) spokesperson. "By looking at size-complex items and improving the stock-taking process, we can improve product availability."

Marks & Spencer currently uses mobile readers on the shop floor and fixed-position readers at its loading bays and distribution centers to scan garment tags. The mobile scanners are used to take daily inventories and trigger replenishment orders. So far, the company has successfully improved stock accuracy and size availability.

"Our clothing RFID work is a good example of how we are using new technology for increased business efficiency and customer service," said James Stafford, head of clothing RFID at M&S. "Stock accuracy has improved and the customers have commented on the more consistent availability of sizes."

Initially, the passive, 869.5 MHz RFID tags were contained in throwaway paper labels. Starting this year, the company began integrating the tags into existing bar code labels. M&S suppliers are responsible for attaching the labels to the garments, which include men's suits, jackets, formal trousers, and ladies' lingerie, suits, trousers and skirts.

The company has issued 35 million tagged items to date, but did not provide an estimate of how many tags may be deployed during the next phase. "We're still defining which clothing departments we're going into," said the spokesperson.

Marks & Spencer has been working with RFID for a number of years. The company initially deployed a successful system used to track returnable frozen food transport trays for its grocery operation using 13.56 MHz inlays from Texas Instruments. The item-level garment system was first unveiled at the company's High Wycombe store near London in a trial partly funded by the UK Department of Trade and Industry.

The item-level trial was notable because Marks & Spencer consulted with consumer advocacy group CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) before the start of the pilot. The company made customer disclosure a key part of the trial: the RFID labels are marked as "Intelligent Labels," and explanatory brochures were made available in the participating store locations. By tackling the privacy issue upfront, the company was able to avoid the controversy that greeted similar pilots in the US (See Marks & Spencer RFID Expansion Tackles Privacy Issue.)

According to the spokesperson, Marks & Spencer will continue to work with the vendors from the initial trial. Paxar of White Plains, New York, supplies the labels, which include chips from Switzerland's EM Microelectronic. UK integrator Intellident, which worked on the frozen food system, designed the scanner technology. SAMSys Technologies, now part of Sirit, supplied both fixed and hand-held readers. BT has served as the primary technology contractor.
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