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Ohio Boutique Takes a Unique Approach to RFID

Clothing merchant Industry Standard uses the technology to support social retailing, which lets shoppers confer with friends before making buying decisions.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 17, 2007The Industry Standard, a month-old boutique in Columbus, Ohio, sells high-end denim, hoodies and other "street couture" worn by the likes of Jay Z and other hip-hop musicians. Place an armful of merchandise—for instance, a T-shirt with a bold, neon green graphic, a huge brown hounds-tooth print hoodie, a pair of even larger jeans, and another hoodie and T-shirt—on the custom concrete countertop, and the system will read the RFID tag attached to each item, create a list of the goods and tabulate the cost, including tax.

This all happens in roughly one second, and without the need of a bar-code scanner. "Customers usually freak when they put product on the counter and I immediately hit one key on the keyboard and tell them their total cost," says Timothy Kehoe, one of the store's owners.

When customers place items to be purchased on the counter, the system reads the RFID tag attached to each item, creates a list of the goods and tabulates the cost.

All of the store's merchandise—approximately 1,250 items—carry RFID labels that Kehoe and his business partner, Dominic Petrozzi, have applied to the goods before putting them on the sales floor. They, along with Neco Can—a retail industry veteran with a long history of involvement with RFID and an investor in the store—have big plans for using the technology that go well beyond RFID-enabled check-out terminals. Brad Chuminatto, a longtime business associate of Can's, architected the RFID systems in the store.

"I've been talking about RFID for 11 years. I decided to stop talking and start doing," says Can, whose résumé lists IT and supply chain positions at Abercrombie & Fitch and the Gap. Can spearheaded RFID trials for both retailers, but says these projects fell short of his long-term vision. He's very enthusiastic about the approach the Industry Standard is taking to RFID, he says, which he calls a grassroots, creative effort, small enough for him and the store founders to experiment with new applications.

One such experiment taps into a growing movement in retail called social retailing, which uses technology to enable shoppers to confer with friends before making buying decisions. Buried in the wall of the Industry Standard's dressing room is an RFID interrogator antenna. When a patron enters the room and places items on the wall hook above the concealed antenna, the interrogator reads each item tag's Electronic Product Codes (EPC), and a Web page showing a photo and description of the item appears on a touch-screen computer monitor mounted on the opposite wall. In some cases, a short biography of the designer may also appear, as well as photos of celebrities wearing the outfit. Some clothing lines are produced by rap artists, so those items tend to carry extra cache among the artists' fans.

The customer can use the touch-screen to send a text message, along with a link to the page displayed on the screen, to a friend's cell phone. The customer can then leave the dressing room and stand in front of a common-area mirror, where a video camera will photograph that customer and stream the photos to the store's Web site. This enables the friend to check out the product details and see how the items look on the customer before giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the purchase.

Can says the store's customers embrace technology and would rather turn to their friends, via their iPhone or MySpace page, for buying advice, than turn to store employees. "They'll buy something because they or their friends think it's cool, or maybe because Jay Z wore it to the Grammys," he says, "not because we try to sell it to them."

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