C&A Expands RFID Usage to Track Inventory

By Claire Swedberg

The clothing company plans to employ EPC tags and readers to manage shipments of high-demand items to a total of 25 stores, and to use the technology to monitor inventory at each location.

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Dutch clothing company C&A is expanding its radio frequency identification system from what was initially a trial involving five of its stores in Germany, to cover 25 locations. C&A, which manufactures its own apparel and footwear for men, women and children, is testing whether the technology can improve its supply chain visibility and in-store inventory, to ensure that at all times, certain goods are on the shelves for purchase at each of its stores.

The company, which operates approximately 1,600 stores throughout 20 countries, specializes in providing affordable, quality apparel, with a focus on sustainability—for example, clothing made from organic cotton. Garments are made as ordered by specific stores, and the firm strives to ensure not only that an adequate quantity of goods are on its stores’ sales floors and in their back rooms, but also that merchandise is replenished as when sold.

C&A’s Joachim Wilkens

The company commenced a trial deployment of an ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC RFID solution in June 2012, in an effort to provide an automated system including advance shipping notices as goods leave the factory bound for a specific store, as well as inventory data that tracks which goods are in each store’s back room and on the sales floor, which have been sold and, in some cases, what has passed through the doors of a particular location. In this way, the firm aims to better ensure that “never out of stock” (NOS) items are always on the shelf, says Joachim Wilkens, C&A Group’s director of supply chain development. Such goods include women and children’s underwear, men’s and women’s jeans, and men’s suits, trousers and blazers.

For NOS items destined for the RFID-enabled stores, EPC Gen 2 passive UHF tags, supplied by Avery Dennison, are attached to hangtags at the point of the garments’ manufacture. To date, 11 apparel suppliers are applying and reading RFID tags at a total of 13 locations. When one those suppliers receives an order from a store, via a software application provided by Creativesystems, workers at that factory utilize a Motorola Solutions MC3190-Z handheld reader or FX7400 fixed reader to interrogate the tags, and to store each tag’s ID number with the appropriate stock-keeping unit (SKU) for that item. As the order is packed, the tags are read and confirmed in the system as appropriate for that particular order. The Creativesystems software then sends an advance shipping notice to the store, indicating what has been packed and shipped.

Once the goods are received at the store, employees use the MC3190-Z handhelds to read all of the items’ tags. The readers then forward those ID numbers to Checkpoint Systems‘ OAT software, residing on the store’s back-end system, which updates the store’s inventory status to indicate which items have been received and are in the back room. Upon placing the goods on sales-floor shelves, workers read the tags once more using the handheld readers, and that event is then captured by the software.

Customers can bring any goods they want to a sales counter, where an RFID reader provided by Checkpoint reads those products’ tags and updates the OAT software to indicate which items are now being removed. If the software determines that the minimum quantity of products of a particular SKU has been reached, it sends a notification to the store’s managers, who then reorder those items. At some stores, a final Checkpoint reader, mounted at the exit, reads the tags of garments leaving the store, thereby providing an additional piece of data indicating which items have left the premises. However, Wilkens notes, the reader is not being used for electronic surveillance at this time.

With the expansion, C&A will tag the NOS products sold at the 25 German stores, with plans to complete the deployment during May of this year. Describing the benefits that the retailer yielded from the initial five-store pilot, Wilkens says, “We are happy to achieve lower out-of-stock and NOSBOS numbers.” NOSBOS stands for “not on shelf but on stock,” and having lower NOSBOS figures means there are fewer instances in which goods are available in the back room but not on the sales floor. “In addition,” he states, “higher efficiency of in-store processes, such as replenishing of shelves, was achieved.” Based on these initial results, he reports, the company feels justified in launching a second phase of the pilot including additional store locations.