Believe What You Read About RFID

By Mark Roberti

Some benefits seem so amazing that companies are skeptical about the technology actually delivering such outsized returns.

This is a true story. A few years ago, during our RFID Journal LIVE! Europe event, a gentleman from a major athletic shoe company came up to me and said, "We ran a pilot at one of our stores here, and sales went up 20 percent."

"That's fantastic!" I responded.

"No," he said, "it was a disaster." I asked how a sales increase of 20 percent could be a disaster. "Because when I presented the results to my superiors, they laughed me out of the room," he replied. "If sales had gone up three percent, I would have received funding to expand the pilot, but instead they killed it."

While this is an extreme example, it is certainly not the only case I've heard of companies not pursuing an RFID project because they didn't believe the pilot results were credible. Senior executives are skeptical of claims made by purveyors of new technology because, too often in the past, they did not see the promised benefits.

A certain level of skepticism is natural and healthy. But skeptics should not simply kill a project that delivered benefits that seem too good to be true. Investigate. Was the methodology wrong? Were the pilot managers including benefits that had nothing to do with the technology—for example, did sales go up because a couple of items received unexpected publicity?

I would not tell the CEO of any retail chain that RFID will increase sales by 20 percent. But I also would not say it's impossible.

Kevin Ashton was a brand manager at Procter & Gamble (P&G) before he became a cofounder and the executive director of the Auto-ID Center. P&G offered a particularly hot shade of lipstick in the late 1990s. Kevin kept going to stores and finding that shade out of stock, which led him to look at technologies that could alert employees when something was not on the shelves. Had Kevin been able to put an RFID transponder on each tube of lipstick and readers in every lipstick rack, he might well have seen sales of that shade go up 20 percent or more.

It's now 20 years later and RFID technology is reaching a maturity level that has made it possible to keep hot clothing items restocked. It will soon have an impact on jewelry, cosmetics, sporting goods and other retail categories as well.

I think it's good to be skeptical and to test a technology's abilities—and even to retest if you don't believe the results. Roll out slowly to ensure you achieve the results expected at each step. But to blindly reject a technology because it seems too good to be true is not a wise strategy.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.