Divining the True State of RFID Adoption in Retail

By Mark Roberti

The technology's adoption is picking up in the retail apparel and nonapparel sectors.


In March 2015, GS1 US, the organization that developed the Electronic Product Code standards for passive ultrahigh-frequency radio frequency identification, issued a press release stating its 2014 GS1 Standards Usage Survey revealed that 57 percent of U.S. retailers “are currently implementing RFID, and another 19.3 percent planned to implement RFID within the next 12 months.” The release also said an additional 10.5 percent planned to implement RFID within 13 to 24 months. This means by the end of 2016, some 87 percent of all U.S. retailers are likely to have deployed an RFID system.

In October, Retail Systems Research (RSR) published its 2015 benchmark report “Retail Supply Chain Execution: New Requirements To Meet New Demand.” The report focuses largely on retailers’ opinions about supply-chain execution issues, such as the need to replenish closer to the point of demand and to change the way respondents fulfill orders based on cross-channel demand. But one chart indicates 25 percent of respondents have “implemented or are rolling out” item-level auto-ID tagging and another 24 percent have “budgeted or are evaluating” that technology.

Illustration: iStockphoto

In September, at RFID Journal’s RFID in Retail and Apparel event, Bill Hardgrave said: “In 2015, about 50 percent of the top 100 retailers in the U.S. are using RFID in some respect.” He based this on the retailers that have worked with Auburn University’s RFID Lab, which he heads, and on publicly available information. Of that 50 percent, he estimated half were conducting a proof of concept or pilot and another 46 percent were phasing in their deployment. Just 3 percent of the top 100 retailers are fully deployed, he said.

Taken together, this would suggest that retail is very close to reaching the tipping point at which the entire industry—or at least all retailers focused on apparel—will deploy RFID systems. But RFID Journal is skeptical. Our data—based on retailers signing up for RFID Journal newsletters, participating in our online retail seminars and attending our face-to-face retail events—suggests that, yes, the large retailers are getting serious about taking advantage of RFID. But we do not see nearly as much activity among the small and midsize chains.

As RFID Journal reported in March, the GS1 survey focused mainly on Global Trade Identification Numbers, electronic data interchange and advance shipping notices. The survey questions related to RFID use were sent only to the 177 respondents who indicated a familiarity with RFID. Most were apparel and footwear retailers and accounted for just 22 percent of all respondents. So the survey results indicate 87 percent of those already actively researching RFID solutions will deploy RFID by the end of 2016—not 87 percent of all retailers.

The RSR study comprised just 91 qualified retail respondents, roughly 54 percent of which have sales of more than $250 million. It’s quite possible 25 percent of this group is rolling out an RFID system, but the survey sample is too small to draw any firm conclusions about the state of RFID adoption. Interestingly, the survey does point out the need for inventory visibility and omnichannel fulfillment, which is a big part of what RFID can deliver to retailers.

What’s the real state of RFID adoption in retail, and when will we reach the tipping point? It’s difficult to say, for several reasons. We don’t know how many midsize and small retail chains are deploying RFID or running pilots.

We don’t know how many of the pilots will lead to rollouts (not all do, even when the pilot is successful). We don’t know how long it will take for those already doing phased deployments to reach full deployment. And we don’t know how long it will take for those just conducting pilots to begin phasing in a deployment and then reach full deployment.

RFID Journal believes the tipping point might be farther off than headlines based on recent surveys project. One reason is that the level of commitment to RFID projects varies among retailers. Some are aggressively deploying the technology. Others seem to be conducting proof of concepts or pilots merely to avoid falling too far behind competitors. Other projects seem to be a higher priority.

Another reason is that for the industry to reach a tipping point, more items must be tagged at the source. The GS1 survey found that 78 percent of the retailers who were sent questions related to RFID indicated at least some of the goods they receive is tagged. More specifically, 20.4 percent reported 41 percent to 60 percent of their received goods are tagged, 18.6 percent said a total of 61 percent to 80 percent of their merchandise is tagged, and 8 percent said all goods are tagged. Conversely, 15 percent reported no tagged goods, and 7 percent said they didn’t know. Those numbers are encouraging, but the responses are only from retailers that indicated a familiarity with RFID. We suspect if the entire retail market were surveyed, the responses would be lower.

While we’re not likely to see the tipping point within the next six months, RFID adoption is picking up in the retail apparel and nonapparel sectors. Each year, more retailers are realizing RFID is the answer to their inventory accuracy problem and is critical to their being able to carry out omnichannel selling. And as Hardgrave says in his Tuned In column, adapting to an omnichannel world is essential for survival. We encourage all retailers to begin exploring RFID as a solution to their inventory accuracy and store and supply-chain execution issues, because if they wait until the industry reaches the tipping point, it will be too late.