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Staples Testing Active RFID for In-Store Tracking, Security

The retailer is working with Fujitsu Transaction Solutions and RFID solution provider AbsoluteSky to run a six-week pilot, evaluating a proprietary, active RFID system for tracking product inventory and shrinkage in a 37,000-square-foot Montreal retail store.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
May 30, 2007Staples Business Depot isn't new to RFID. Last year, the 270-store Canadian unit of Staples Inc., and a supplier of office products, business machines, office furniture and business services, completed a three-month trial using passive EPC tags for supply chain applications (see Staples Business Depot Sees Big Benefits From RFID Test).

The retailer is now putting a different application to the test: a proprietary RFID system for tracking high-value products inside a large Montreal retail location. The company is in the midst of a six-week trial involving Canadian RFID systems provider AbsoluteSky and Fujitsu Transaction Solutions, a Frisco, Texas, provider of point-of-sale hardware and software systems to retailers.

Staples Business Depot is testing a proprietary RFID system for tracking high-value products.

"Staples has dabbled in passive, and now active," says Joe Soares, Staples Business Depot's director of process engineering. "I believe that you need a mix of both to be able to have full coverage of your operations." Soares says that for supply chain applications, such as tracking the movement of cases and pallets of goods from manufacturing facilities through to stores, passive, disposable EPC tags make the most sense. But for tracking the movement of goods within retail stores—especially those as large as Staples Business Depots—he believes active tags and readers make it easier to pinpoint the locations of specific items.

According to Soares, it is possible Staples Business Depot will eventually employ an EPC-based passive tagging system to track cases and pallets in the supply chain, as well as use active, item-level RFID tags and readers inside its stores. He notes, however, that his company is not using EPC technology today. Though the results of the retailer's EPC trial showed efficiencies and improvements in data accuracy linked to shipment receipts, Staples Business Depot, he says, is "still evaluating the return on investment [it] can get [from EPC]."

For the current trial, the retailer is using AbsoluteSky's IntelliTracker tags, readers and software. The system is sold and installed through Fujitsu Transaction Solutions, which began offering RFID integration services early last year (see Fujitsu Offering RFID Services, Readers).

John Frabasile, president of AbsoluteSky, declines to reveal details regarding how the readers determine the tags' location, nor the specific frequency the tags and readers use, deeming such information proprietary. He explains, however, that the tags—which have an estimated battery life of five years—operate only in one frequency range, and that the readers' sensitivity is tuned according to their placement and desired read range. For example, interrogators used to locate tags throughout a large area of the store are set to read tags at a greater distance than those employed to search specific areas of the store.

AbsoluteSky developed IntelliTracker to help retailers locate and count tagged items in a store, and to alert staff of both imminent and successful theft of tagged items. This makes the system a potential alternative to the electronic article surveillance (EAS) systems most retailers currently use. When an IntelliTracker interrogator detects a tag within a defined area close to the store exit and reads its unique ID number, the IntelliTracker software compares the number to the IDs of tags attached to items purchased. These ID numbers are collected using very low-range readers stationed at the point of sale, used by sales clerks to read a purchased item's tag before removing it from the item. The removed tags will later be re-encoded and attached to another item for sale.

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