American Apparel Deploys Real-Time, Storewide RFID Inventory-Management Solution

By Claire Swedberg

The system, provided by Senitron, includes Impinj readers that capture the locations of all tagged items within a store in real time, eliminating the need to conduct inventory counts using handheld interrogators.

RFID startup Senitron has installed a fixed RFID solution at two American Apparel stores, enabling the retailer to view the real-time locations of all tagged items within predetermined zones throughout both sites. The technology, installed this spring at two Los Angeles shops, includes fixed Impinj readers and Senitron's antennas, as well as a software platform that manages data related to each read event. According to a press release from Impinj, the retailer intends to launch a chain-wide deployment of Senitron's system; American Apparel declined to comment for this story.

Senitron, a Los Angeles RFID solutions provider with a focus on retail environments, was initially launched in 2009 to sell an electronic article surveillance (EAS) solution employing radio frequency identification technology, says John Armstrong, Senitron's CTO. The company closed due to a lack of funding, but reopened this year thanks to new financial support, offering a new solution—a fixed RFID system designed to provide real-time location data throughout a store.

Senitron's John Armstrong

Most RFID solutions in use by retailers still provide inventory-tracking and out-of-stock data via fixed ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) reader portals installed at such locations as doorways between the stockroom and the storefront, or via handheld readers, operated periodically by store personnel to determine what merchandise is available on shelves. Senitron's solution is intended to supply RFID location data indicating not only which goods are in the store, but also in which particular zone within the backroom or storefront. And it does so using fixed readers, thereby eliminating the need for staff members to conduct inventory audits with handhelds.

In December 2012, American Apparel completed what has been an ongoing installation of an Xterprise UHF RFID system at all of its stores, consisting of fixed readers in the store room, as well as at the storefront entrance and at the point of sale. Employees also periodically utilize handheld readers to track which items are on the shelves.

Senitron approached American Apparel early this year with its more comprehensive solution, and the retailer agreed to test the technology initially at its 3,000-square-foot store in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. Because American Apparel already tags nearly all of its merchandise, Armstrong explains, the installation proved to be fairly simple. However, the Little Tokyo store was selected as the first testing site due to the complexity of its physical design: Rather than being a simple box-like structure, the store is U-shaped, with a variety of nooks and alcoves within which tagged items may be located.

To ensure that all areas had full read coverage, Senitron installed approximately six Impinj Speedway Revolution readers and 70 antennas, and divided the store into zones. Based on which specific antennas captured a particular tag ID's transmission, the software can determine in which zone that tag is located. Each zone measures about 4 feet by 4 feet, or larger. If an item is removed from one zone and then placed in another—which may occur if a customer tries on a garment and then returns it to the wrong shelf—the system identifies that action. Staff members viewing the software can then quickly locate that misplaced item and return it to its proper location.

The software also identifies, in real time, if a product needs to be restocked, since specific EPC RFID tag numbers are no longer being read. What's more, if a customer requests a particular piece of merchandise, a worker can enter that item's product code into the software, which then determines its location within the store based on the linkage between that product code and the RFID number of the tag attached to that item, as well as where the tag was interrogated.

When the system was taken live at the Little Tokyo store, Senitron reports, the company immediately discovered around 1,500 items that had previously been missing from the store's inventory system. Based on the technology's success at that store, American Apparel then approved the system's installation at its shop in Melrose, another Los Angeles neighborhood. The store was larger than the Little Tokyo shop—approximately 8,000 square feet—but it proved to be a less challenging installation, the company notes, due to its straightforward, rectangular shape. At the Melrose store, Senitron installed about 150 antennas and around a dozen readers.

Since the solution's installation, Impinj and Senitron have continued to work together to reduce the density of antennas necessary to obtain location data based on a specific zone. The partners are now striving to increase the number of antennas that can be used with a single reader, says Andrew Gassiot, Impinj's sales director for the central region.

At both American Apparel stores, Gassiot notes, Senitron installed the antennas directly in the ceiling lighting racks. This, he says, made the installation simpler and more aesthetically pleasing. "The great thing about the Senitron system is it automatically locates and reports the [locations of] products," he states. "This gives better visibility from a managerial and corporate perspective—which, in turn, allows for better inventory management."

The software runs independently from the company's existing Xterprise Clarity Advanced Retail Solution (ARS) software, which tracks when goods are moved from the back room to the storefront, as well as when an item is purchased at the point of sale. American Apparel tags its merchandise with EPC UHF RFID tags containing embedded Impinj UHF Monza 3 and Monza 4 chips.