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Marks & Spencer Expects to Achieve 100 Percent RFID-Tagging by 2017

The global retailer is also eyeing ways to leverage RFID technology at its stores to further improve in-store inventory accuracy and efficiency.
By Claire Swedberg

When it comes to size complexity, the more sizes—and, therefore, stock-keeping units (SKUs)—of a given product are available, the more difficult it can be to keep each size on the shelf. For instance, different in-seam and waist sizes can lead to 50 different SKUs of a single style of men's pants. It can thus be very difficult for a store to ensure that one particular size is available on the shelf. On the other hand, non-complex-size items have a buffer; there may be many more items for a category onsite, making immediate replacement not as important.

Because M&S captures inventory data via handheld readers every three weeks, Jenkins adds, some fashion items do not gain much from the use of RFID either, since by the time the inventory count is performed, a garment or accessory may already be out of date. In such cases, re-ordering is unnecessary.

Richard Jenkins
Despite some areas in which tagging may offer negligible benefits, Jenkins says, the company's management made a decision two years ago to tag everything—450 million products annually. "Having completeness is an enabler of so many things you can't do if you only have, say, 80 percent," he states. "And having two different processes for RFID-enabled departments and non-RFID departments raises unnecessary complexity."

In the future, the retailer intends to make RFID part of an evolving strategy as it transitions from a majority of sales in brick-and-mortar stores to a more Internet-based model. Stock accuracy can be critical in ensuring that individuals who order goods online receive those items quickly.

By next spring, Marks & Spencer plans to tag the remainder of its homeware merchandise (including kitchenware, children's books and stuffed toys, amounting to another 25 million items). And by 2016, it hopes to tag most beauty and cosmetics products.

In addition to expanding its RFID-tagging efforts to all goods, the company began focusing last summer on ways in which it can further leverage the technology. "My work since July of last year has been around investigating a road map around future RFID use," Jenkins explains. In 2014, M&S launched a program known as RFID Strategic Development, focused on improving RFID-based inventory accuracy and efficiency, and on reducing business costs. Currently, the company's inventory accuracy across its stores is about 83 percent in RFID-enabled categories, but much less in those without RFID. But the reason that the accuracy is at 83 percent rather than 100 percent, Jenkins notes, is that inventory counts are conducted only once every three weeks, rather than more often. The company is now investigating the use of fixed readers installed around a store to document inventory on a daily basis.

Jenkins says M&S has "a detailed roadmap" that includes using RFID tags to enhance the customer experience, loss prevention and operational efficiency. "RFID has proven to improve item-level accuracy in departments and stores," he reports. "This, in turn, improves customer availability and full-price sales performance. Used in this way, RFID is good for customers and good for business."

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