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Apparel Retailers Test RFID-enhanced EAS Hard Tags

Three clothing-store operators will use Retailers Advantage's Intelligent a3tag, which combines traditional electronic article surveillance technology with EPC Gen 2 RFID inlays, to track inventory and reduce shrinkage.
By Claire Swedberg
Oct 27, 2010Over the next two months, three apparel retailers will begin testing an RFID-enhanced electronic article surveillance (EAS) hard tag provided by Toronto-based EAS technology firm Retailers Advantage. The system employs EPC Gen 2 RFID inlays and readers to reduce shrinkage, by tracking when EAS hard tags are removed from products being sold in a store.

EAS hard tags are encased in tough plastic, and lock onto items—usually apparel—by means of a steel pin. An employee can utilize a special device to detach an EAS hard tag from a product prior to a consumer taking that item out of a store; otherwise, an alarm will sound when the hard tag is detected at the door. Through RFID technology, the quantity of hard tags removed from a product can be measured, and if that amount is inconsistent with the number of sales, a store's management can investigate further, tracing the cause back to a specific worker. The RFID-enhanced system can also be used to track a specific item's location within a store, as long as the necessary RFID reader infrastructure is installed.

Retailers Advantage's non-RFID a3tag (left) and its Intelligent a3tag hard tag (right), which contains an EPC Gen 2 RFID inlay
Retailers Advantage sells a variety of EAS hard tags, labels and hardware, including those manufactured by Checkpoint Systems. Since February 2009, the technology firm has been selling non-RFID versions of its a3tag hard tag, which employs acousto-magnetic (AM) or 8.2 MHz radio frequency (RF) EAS technology. Non-RFID a3tags are currently deployed by stores throughout North America and Europe, says Sheila Barry, Retailers Advantage's president. All stores utilizing the non-RFID version, as well as those three stores preparing to use the RFID-enhanced hard tag, have asked to remain unnamed.

All a3tag hard tags provide greater security than typical EAS systems, Barry reports, because they come with a locking mechanism that has a pulling strength (the amount of force required to break the mechanism and thereby remove the hard tag) three times that of other EAS hard tags. However, she notes, they can not necessarily address shrinkage as a result of theft from staff members. In this case, for example, an employee could use a device called a detacher to remove hard tags from unpaid-for merchandise, and then take those items herself, or include them in a stack of other goods sold to a friend. While stores lose a large amount of merchandise this way, Barry says, it can be very difficult to track when and how particular items went missing, as well as which employee was responsible.

To address this problem, the company developed the Intelligent a3tag, which contains a passive UHF EPC Gen 2 UPM Raflatac Web inlay with an Impinj Monza 3 chip and two antennas—one for near-field (short-range) communication with an RFID interrogator, the other for far-field (long-range) communication. Another key component of the Intelligent a3tag system is a version of Retailers Advantage's Multi-Lock Power Detacher (MLPD) with a built-in UHF RFID interrogator, designed to read the Intelligent a3tag's RFID inlay at short range when a member of a retailer's staff uses the MLPD to remove the hard tag. The system also includes Retailers Advantage's Multilock Smart Reader software, developed by Freedom Shopping Inc., which interprets and stores data regarding each tag read. If a store sets the software to track individual items, rather than to simply count tags, it can also know which item has gone missing—and when that occurred. The store can then check its employee records to determine which personnel were working at the counter at the time of the potential theft.

Three retailers—two located in Canada, and a third in the United Kingdom—are preparing to begin using the Intelligent a3tags in the coming months for three- or six-month pilots, in order to assess the solution's effectiveness. In the case of one Canadian retailer, the system will be used only for counting hard-tag removals. The detacher will read an Intelligent a3tag's RFID inlay at the point of sale, when it comes within several centimeters of the hard tag. The interrogator in the detacher captures the unique ID number of the hard tag's RFID inlay, and transmits that number, along with a time and date stamp, to the Retailers Advantage software. The software then stores each event for every ID, and provides a total number of hard-tag removals, based on the number of different RFID inlays read by the detacher's reader. The store's management can then compare the quantity of hard-tag removals against the total sales. Initially, the store will use the Intelligent a3tag only on items of high value—for instance, on goods costing more than $50 apiece. The retailer intends to test the system in five stores, and has acquired and installed the detacher RFID reader hardware at one of those stores thus far.

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