Cycle Shop Speeds Up Service With RFID Technology

By Claire Swedberg

Bike Lane, in Shenandoah, Texas, is expanding an RFID system from PTS Mobile that locates bicycles in its storeroom, to include repairs and the tracking of tools to accomplish those repairs.

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Bike Lane, one of the Houston area’s busiest bicycle sales and repair businesses, is expanding a radio frequency identification-based solution to include repairs, as well as tracking the bikes to be sold. Since the company began using RFID technology to track its new bicycles in its back room in 2013, it has boosted sales and reduced labor related to employees searching for inventory, says Herb Beimgraben, Bike Lane’s co-owner. The TracerPlus RFID technology is provided by Portable Technology Solutions.

Bike Lane is a family-owned business that has served the Houston area since 1995. It sells bicycles, as well as accessories and repairs, and also tunes up used bikes for customers. However, because it is located in a shopping mall with limited space, it must store boxed inventory in tight quarters that can make it difficult for employees to find the inventory they seek.

Bike Lane’s Herb Beimgraben

The store front and storage area encompass about 8,000 square feet, and within that space, 300 to 400 boxes of new bikes must be stored throughout eight 30-foot aisles of shelving. The boxes, measuring approximately 6 feet by 1 foot by 3 feet in size, come from a dozen different vendors, and also consist of different styles, sizes and colors. “We use every square inch we have,” Beimgraben says.

Assemblers in the store are tasked with finding the correct bike in boxed storage before building it for display as needed. When the process was manual, it was often time-consuming. In addition, customers sometimes want to see a specific bike that is not on display, requiring store associates to retrieve it from storage. Before the RFID system was implemented, that meant workers would need to walk through the back room searching the printed labels to locate the one the customer seeks. That process could take 15 to 30 minutes. If the store was busy, Beimgraben says, this wasn’t feasible, so the staff would have to ask the customer to come back later, after the bike had been retrieved. That kind of inconvenience could mean the loss of a sale.

So four years ago, Beimgraben began investigating solutions and opted for a TracerPlus system consisting of RFID tags, a handheld reader and an app to store the collected read data. With the TracerPlus RFID Tag Locator solution, when each new product arrives in its box, store personnel apply an EPC ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID tag with a unique ID number, then manually record that number on paper, along with the bike’s details.

The company thereby has a record of that bike and all other products received in the back room. Because the boxes are large and cumbersome, and since storage space is limited, the company does not store boxes according to vendor, style or other category. It simply places each box on an available space in the shelves.

When a worker needs to find a box, he or she can enter the ID number from the printed list into a Zebra Technologies MC9190-Z RFID reader. The reader then goes into Geiger counter mode. The employee can simply walk into the storage area with the device, which will begin to respond audibly and with a beeping sound that will become louder and more frequent as the reader nears the tag. Typically, it will begin interrogating the tag as soon as he or she arrives at the end of the aisle in which the tagged box is stored, Beimgraben says, meaning it takes only a matter of seconds to find the right item, rather than several minutes.

Now, if a customer likes a specific bike on display but would prefer to see it in a different color, for instance, the worker can walk to the back room and locate the appropriate box, making it more likely that the customer will make a purchase since he or she did not have to wait. “I think one of the things that surprised me was how people bought into the technology so quickly,” Beimgraben recalls, referring to his staff. They were less frustrated, made more sales and could focus their time on working directly with customers, he says.

Because the system is working well, Beimgraben notes, the store is now looking into how it might expand the technology’s use. It has begun applying tags to some of the tools used to repair or tune up bikes, and has recently begun tagging bikes as they are received from customers for repair work.

Typically, the store contains 20 to 30 bikes in its repair area at various stages of completion, Beimgraben says. Sometimes, customers call in to inquire about the status of their bike’s repair, or to request a change, such as changing the handlebar grip or the color of the tape. By using the handheld reader, workers can quickly locate a particular bike and update the customer or make changes to the work order.

“I think it’s amazing how this technology has benefited us,” Beimgraben states. He recently purchased a second handheld to ensure that the system never goes down if the first reader fails.