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Signs RFID Is Nearing a Tipping Point in Apparel Retail

A number of leading indicators suggest the sector is poised to adopt radio frequency technology en masse within the next few years.
By Mark Roberti
Oct 28, 2016

For the past few years, RFID Journal has been saying that the first industry to adopt radio frequency identification on a large scale would likely be apparel retail. There are several reasons for this. Clothing is RF-friendly, making it easy to read tags on large numbers of individual items. Clothing inventory is complex, with a wide variety of styles, colors and sizes. The ability to read many tags quickly enables retailers to identify which items are running low or have run out on the store floor and replenish them more effectively. And finally, some big retailers, including Kohl's, Macy's, Marks & Spencer and Zara, have been deploying RFID for inventory tracking.

So how close to mass adoption is apparel retail? In some ways, it seems far off. Fewer than a dozen U.S. retailers are using RFID on most items in all their stores. And some studies estimate that less than 5 percent of all apparel items are tracked with an RFID tag. But there are anecdotal signs that the industry is moving closer to the tipping point, at which time the trickle of new retailers adopting the technology will become a flood. Here are a few signs.

Illustration: Hong Li, iStockphoto
Research conducted by Auburn University's RFID Lab—based on public reports and the lab's own work with numerous retailers—reveals that U.S. retailers adopting RFID increased 32 percent from June 2015 to June 2016, up from a 23 percent increase the previous year. This suggests adoption among apparel retailers is accelerating. This is supported by RFID Journal's own data. We saw a 25 percent increase in newsletter subscribers from the retail sector from June 2014 to June 2015, and a 37 percent increase from June 2015 to June 2016.

The RFID Lab study also found that many retailers are launching a proof of concept. A PoC typically involves one or two stores and a limited number of merchandise categories. It is designed to demonstrate RFID's effectiveness in the retailer's environment. The study revealed an impressive 42 percent growth in apparel retailers conducting PoCs.

Another positive sign for RFID adoption in apparel retail is that more PoCs are leading to larger pilots. Many of the retailers conducting PoCs last year moved to pilots this year, resulting in a 57 percent increase in the number of pilots, which typically involve more test stores, more tagged categories, and the use of matched control stores to help isolate the effect RFID has on replenishment and sales.

There was a relatively small increase (18 percent) in phased deployments. The most likely reason for the modest increase, according to the study, was that some retailers extended pilots, and it often takes months to convince management to go from a pilot to a phased rollout. In addition, phased rollouts tend to commence at the start of the year, when the holiday selling season is over and new funding becomes available.

The study did find that the number of retailers with full deployments—tracking all items in all stores with RFID—doubled. But, the lab cautions, the base was low, so the 100 percent growth is not particularly significant.

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