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Conair Uses Its Own RFID Solutions to Expedite Shipments

The U.S. supplier of personal-grooming and kitchen appliances plans to have all of its factories apply EPC Gen 2 tags to individual products by the end of 2010, and is launching a new RFID-based cargo seal.
By Claire Swedberg
Oct 13, 2009Conair, a U.S. manufacturer and marketer of health and beauty products and kitchen appliances, is taking another step toward using radio frequency identification to track every item it sells, from factory to store. The company's RFID-focused subsidiary, United Security Applications ID (USA ID), is developing an RFID interrogator that will be utilized in Conair's Costa Rica and Chinese factories to encode tags applied to products as they are manufactured and prepared for shipping. Once the devices are put in place—which is slated to occur in the first half of 2010—USA ID expects Conair to tag all of the products it manufactures, says Paul Arguin, Conair/USA ID's director of technology and engineering.

The deployment is part of the company's two-pronged effort to employ RFID technology to improve supply chain visibility for itself, as well as for customs authorities and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Conair—one of the 50 largest importers to the United States—has also developed RFID-based container seals, which it is attaching to some containers it uses to ship its products to the United States. The seals enable Conair, logistics companies, customs officials and the DHS to confirm what is in a container, ensure it has not been tampered with and enable Conair to locate that container and its contents. According to Arguin, a new version of the seal—a bolt containing a passive UHF EPC Gen 2 RFID tag, designed to be inexpensive and look like non-RFID container bolts already on the market—will be in use for international shipping once it receives its ISO/PAS 17712 certification (a safety standard required for mechanical seals), which is expected to happen this month).

USAS ID's first-generation cargo seal locks onto a reusable GPS tracker that uses a GPRS connection to report its location and security status at desired intervals.
In 2002, Conair first began tagging products destined for Wal-Mart to comply with that retailer's RFID policy. It formed USA ID to develop RFID solutions that would not only provide valuable data to Wal-Mart regarding the products' whereabouts, but also offer Conair visibility into its supply chain. USA ID also began working with the DHS in 2002 to improve the security of shipments arriving in the United States from other countries. In this effort, USA ID developed an RFID-enabled container seal with an EPC Gen 2 passive UHF tag that could ensure a container had not been opened, and provide an electronic manifest that could be accessed by customs or the DHS as the container passed through U.S. ports. Since USA ID began developing its EPC Gen 2 container seal, several other companies—such as Secura Shield—have developed their own versions as well.

This year, Conair launched a pilot program whereby it tested whether RFID technology could improve out-of-stocks. The company tagged products at the item level as they were shipped to Sam's Club's distribution centers (DCs) and stores throughout the country. Conair attached EPC Gen 2 RFID tags manufactured by USA ID to the packaging of Cuisinart and Waring products, as well as other high-end personal-care items. An RFID tag was applied to each item and read as it left Conair's warehouse in South Haven, Miss., then was read again at Sam's Club's DCs and stores. Software designed by USA ID then uploaded information derived from RFID interrogators located at the DCs and stores, thereby enabling Conair to receive updates regarding those items' locations. With that data, Conair was better able to reduce out-of-stocks and ensure stores had sufficient product, thereby increasing sales.

"We saw a significant increase," Arguin says. "It raised eyebrows for everybody, not just Conair," but also Sam's Club. "We believe that the increased sales were directly related to both Conair and our customer [Sam's Club] having visibility of out-of-stocks." Because low-inventory alerts could be sent based on data from the tag reads as they were received at stores, along with point-of-sale data indicating sales of products, the reordering of products occurred more quickly than it had with the manual system, he says. "We believe that overlooking out-of-stock conditions is eliminated. You can't sell what isn't on the shelf."

Based on the success of its Sam's Club pilot, Conair's South Haven warehouse began tagging master cartons—which carry four to six hair driers apiece—destined for Wal-Mart stores. Each tag will be encoded with a unique ID number linked to data about the corresponding carton and the products contained within. The tagging process commenced in September, for products that will be shipped in November.

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