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At William Ashley, RFID Name Tags Improve Service

The Canadian retailer is using Ubisense's real-time location system to speed the process of bringing the goods to customers, and of summoning sales help.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Aug 08, 2008William Ashley is no everyday retailer. The Canadian purveyor of high-end china, crystal and other tableware is all about customer service. At the company's flagship, 24,000-square-foot showroom on Toronto's Bloor Street, up to 60 salespeople tend to customers, who need not worry about carting purchases around the store. Showcases throughout the sales floor display samples of the retailer's huge inventory of plates, bowls, silverware and vases that make up the 550,000 SKUs it sells.

When a customer is ready to make a purchase, a salesperson runs an inventory check for the items via one of the store's 60 computer stations. Assuming the desired items are in stock, this sets a number of transactions in motion, resulting in the employee handing the wrapped purchases directly to the patron, or having them loaded into the customer's car. To speed the process of bringing the goods to the purchaser—and to improve other store business processes as well—the retailer has installed a Ubisense real-time location system (RTLS).

Up to 60 salespeople help customers on the sales floor of Canadian retailer William Ashley.

Battery-powered Ubisense tags emit a series of short signals (billionths of a second or shorter) at frequencies between 6 and 8 GHz. According to Ubisense, the extremely short nature of these pulses makes them less vulnerable to RF interference from objects and other RF noise, relative to conventional RFID real-time locating systems. Once a reader—or Ubisense Sensor—receives a tag's signal by means of a phased array antenna, it calculates the tag's location by employing two complementary techniques: time difference of arrival (TDOA) and angle of arrival (AOA).

William Ashley partnered with Toronto-based IT systems developer DSI to select, test and deploy the Ubisense system at its Bloor Street location. The company is now preparing to roll out the system at its second retail location as well.

When a salesperson processes a customer's order, an electronic picking list is generated and a hard copy is printed in the store's stock room, where an employee pulls requested items from inventory and sends them, via a conveyor, to a quality-assurance agent. That agent inspects the items for damage, cleans and packages them, and places them on a conveyor leading to a designated area, where another worker—known as a runner—collects the packaged goods and brings them to the salesperson on the floor who requested them. The Ubisense technology is used, in combination with an audio-based directional system, to help the runner quickly locate the appropriate salesperson on the sales floor.

To accomplish this, a Ubisense transponder is integrated into a name tag worn by each runner and salesperson. The printed picking list accompanies each package a runner receives from the quality-assurance department. At a computer station, the runner scans a bar code printed on the list, prompting the Ubisense readers, mounted throughout the store, to determine the location of the salesperson who initiated the order. The Ubisense system can pinpoint a salesperson's location to within 1 foot of accuracy, according to Norm Tomlins, DSI's general manager.

Once the salesperson's whereabouts is determined, the Ubisense system transmits the location data to a Unix-based software tool that DSI customized for William Ashley. This software then transmits audio directions to the runner via an earpiece, updating them constantly, to track the salesperson's movements throughout the store. To lead the runner to the correct salesperson, the audible directions cite departments—and zones within those departments—by name.

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