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New Balance Stepping Up Its Use of RFID

With its first RFID deployment complete, the maker of athletic shoes and clothing is testing whether the technology can improve operations inside New Balance retail outlet stores.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
The men's 992 comes in more than a dozen sizes and in five different widths, so keeping the floor stocked with a thorough representation of sizes and widths is a chore, explained Cornelius. But now, with the pilot in swing, floor staff can use handheld Motorola PDAs to access a list of how many pairs of which size and width are available on the sales floor and how many are in the back of the store. "The store is quite large, so we're not talking about walking 10 feet to the back room," Cornelius said. Aside from saving staff considerable energy, being able to check the backroom stock without leaving the customer's side means better, faster customer service. "We want face-to-face interaction with customers, selling shoes, not searching for shoes," he added.

The software also generates daily replenishment reports for staff, which tell them how many pairs of each width and size of 992 need to be pulled from the back room in order to keep the sales floor adequately stocked.

The equipment and software is working well now, but Cornelius and the technologists from Motorola and Vue had to spend more time than originally anticipated dialing in the process. One challenge consisted of tuning the antennas on the door-mounted fixed interrogators so that they read only the tags passing within a narrow read zone in the doorways. Another was enabling the Vue software to handle the large number of SKUs within the 992 style. "Vue had never worked with footwear before, and that meant they needed to customize the software to be able to handle the larger number of sizes and styles that comes with that," Cornelius said.

With the kinks worked out, the team will soon tackle phase 2 of the project, when not just the 992 but all men's styles sold in the store will be tagged and tracked (again, the women's shoes won't be tagged so they can be used to benchmark the effectiveness of the RFID system). The other styles of shoes will be tagged at distribution centers in Massachusetts and California. Using the tags attached to each box of shoes to identify them and bring them into the store inventory should reduce labor significantly in the store, since currently pallets of shoes must be broken down and the bar code on each box manually scanned.

The goals of the pilot are to reduce labor and inventory and increase sales through better on-hand availability. Cornelius noted that New Balance has no interest, at this stage, in incorporating RFID interrogators into the point-of-sale areas to reduce manual steps during sales transactions. He pointed out that signs throughout the store alert shoppers to the fact that some products in the store bear RFID tags to improve product tracking, and that no consumers have objected to the presence of tags on the shoeboxes they carry out of the store. Since there is no association between the shopper and the product information, he sees no reason for concern.

However, consumer uneasiness over the practice of embedding RFID tags into products is keeping New Balance from testing what many think could be the killer app for RFID in footwear: preventing mismating. A mismate happens when one shoe is paired with the same style shoe but in a different size or width, or when two right or two left shoes of the same style are paired. RFID could prevent this by identifying each individual shoe and linking it to its proper mate. A number of other footwear companies at the event said they were also steering clear of embedding tags in shoes due to consumer apprehension.

As a next step, Cornelius said New Balance is eager to work with one of its retail customers to launch a pilot project in one of that retailer's stores.

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