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Handheld, Fixed or Robotic Readers?

The retail industry ponders the most efficient way to collect RFID inventory data.
By Mark Roberti
Aug 25, 2015

In the early days of radio frequency identification, most people believed the technology would be used to take humans out of the loop—that is, fixed readers would capture information on tagged products or assets without any worker involvement. But retailers found that handheld readers offered a relatively easy and inexpensive way to collect inventory data. Now, overhead readers and new robotic systems are offering other ways to collect data. Here are the pros and cons of the three RFID reader options for retailers.

Handheld Readers
Handhelds are relatively inexpensive compared with fixed readers, which require an Ethernet connection and electric power if power is not supplied via the Ethernet cable. That means wiring and potentially interrupting store operations. Depending on reader type and store size, dozens of fixed readers could be required. Store associates could cover the same ground with one or two handhelds.

Illustration: iStockphoto
The downside of handheld readers is they require labor—companies must pay people to walk around and take inventory. Another problem is workers don't always follow procedures. When a store gets busy, workers may not have time to conduct cycle counts, so items may not be replenished in a timely manner and inventory may not be consistently accurate. In very large stores, it is particularly difficult to manage workers taking inventory with handhelds.

Fixed Overhead and Portal Readers
The first RFID deployments in retail stores depended on fixed readers—mainly, portals were installed at receiving bays, and between the back of the store, where inventory was kept, and the sales floor. In the past few years, Mojix, Impinj and other RFID hardware companies have introduced overhead readers, which can monitor inventory in real time and provide location information, usually to within a few feet. With real-time inventory, retailers can always know what merchandise is on the sales floor and where. In addition, they can use kiosks to let customers search for products and locate those items on a store map.

But, as mentioned above, fixed readers can be expensive to buy and install, because they require cables for Ethernet connections and power. In addition, they need cabling to run to antennas. Fixed readers also can detract from a store's décor, though some overhead readers can be installed in ceilings and vendors have introduced slim-line antennas that are less obtrusive.

Robotic RFID Systems
Robots are the newest option for retailers seeking to capture inventory data. Tesco announced in June that it is trialing an indoor robotics mapping and analytics system in the fashion departments of five of its U.K. stores. The solution is from Silicon Valley company RFspot, which reports that six other retailers globally are carrying out similar pilots.

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