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Sandal Maker to Deploy RFID-enabled Displays in Stores

Sole, a company that makes high-performance sandals and footbeds, hopes that the use of EPC RFID tags will help retailers maintain optimal stock levels of high-demand products.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Aug 24, 2009About nine years ago, Calgary-based Sole started selling high-performance sandals and customizable footbeds. Now, with the goal of improving the availability of its products in retail stores, Sole is turning to radio frequency identification.

In recent months, Sole has garnered a lot of attention in the media and from world-class athletes—ranging from mountaineer Ed Viesturs to ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes to NBA players—and that has translated into increased demand for its products. Consequently, the company is working with a small number of retailers to install RFID-enabled display fixtures that will take periodic inventory counts of RFID tags attached to Sole footbeds, sandals and socks, in order to attain real-time visibility into the available stock at each store.

"We figure that if we put technology in that would track inventory levels, retailers will be able to maximize their on-hand inventory while also avoiding over-stocks and under-stocks," says Jonathon Koop, sales director at Sole, a division of Edge Marketing Corp.

Andrew Baerg, Sole's chief hacking officer (he heads the company's IT operations), says that the sandal maker has been interested in using RFID for product-tracking for a number of years. He notes that Sole is in the final stages of selecting the EPC Gen 2 UHF passive RFID tags and readers that it will deploy for the pilot project and has already tested a number of them for short periods in a few retail stores. The pilot program is set to begin in September and will run until early January 2010.

So far, a handful of retailers have agreed to have the RFID product displays installed at more than 20 stores across the country. The displays are round and roughly 6 feet tall. Each display has arms extending from its center, enabling it to accommodate up to 120 Sole items (a mixture of footbeds, sandals and socks).

An RFID interrogator will be embedded into each fixture, with the reader antennas affixed so that the tag interrogation zone covers the items on display and extends out just a couple feet from the fixture. Sole will manually attach an RFID label to each product shipped to the participating stores, which will place all of the products on the fixture—and not keep any in their stockrooms. The reader will be set to scan all of the tags in its read zone on a frequent, periodic basis, and this data will be automatically forwarded to Sole's Web-based management software, via the reader's Ethernet or Wi-Fi network link.

When inventory levels fall below predetermined levels regarding each product's category, size and color, the participating retailers will receive e-mail alerts that recommend a reorder, says Koop. From there, they can simply log onto Sole's Web-based order-management system and approve or adjust the suggested order.

"The goal is that as long as the retailers keep all of their stock on the fixtures, they will never be out of stock because as items are sold, they will be replaced through reorders," says Baerg.

Baerg acknowledges that customers may occasionally remove tagged products from the fixtures and then, say, place them elsewhere in the store, where they may be mixed with other goods and not noticed by staff for days or weeks, resulting in overstocks of these items when replacement stock is ordered.

"There is going to be a certain rate of error," he says. “We are going to accept that.” At the same time, despite a store's best efforts to keep adequate stock on hand, a spike in demand could result in the opposite problem: an out-of-stock situation in certain styles. But, he claims, Sole warehouses can generally ship new orders within 24 hours and, overall, the new system should result in better-stocked stores and, therefore, improved sales.
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