Forbes Gets RFID

By Rich Handley

An article published last week by the American business magazine, encouraging the adoption of radio frequency identification, may signify a shift in how the media views the technology's value.

One obstacle that has long plagued the radio frequency identification industry has been that the worldwide media hasn't given it enough mainstream coverage. Without sufficient discussion of a technology's positive benefits, companies and individuals are less prone to trust it, and conspiracy theorists are more likely to convince them not to. RFID-focused publications like RFID Journal offer such coverage, of course, but when prominent news organizations discuss the technology, it's sometimes from the standpoint of how tech-wary privacy advocates might oppose it, or how online data breaches might be harbingers of doom for the Internet of Things. That doesn't help to foster adoption.

It's not often a major news source assures its audience that RFID is a valuable tool that works, and that companies should be deploying it to improve efficiencies, track inventory, optimize supply chains, and otherwise benefit their bottom line. So it's gratifying to see a business publication like Forbes, in a Mar. 8 article titled "How RFID Helps Retail Companies Save Money," promoting the technology to its readership, as it has in the past (see  Why Many Companies Don't Get RFID). Not only that, but the article's writer, senior contributor Walter Loeb, poses a question RFID Journal's editors have often pondered: why some companies are slow to embrace RFID even though the technology's benefits have been proven many times over.

"[A] number of companies have adopted RFID as a way to control inventories," Loeb writes. "Leaders include Target, Macy's, Zara, H&M, Uniqlo, Nike, Adidas, Footlocker, Lululemon, Levi's, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Victoria's Secret. That is quite an array of stellar companies, and one has to ask why others have not adopted it." He's right. RFID boosted Nike's inventory-holding costs and decreased its transportation expenses, Loeb notes, while Footlocker made its inventory-tracking more accurate and increased its sales, with employees and consumers alike now able to locate any product, right down to the last unit. With such major players adopting the technology and proving its value, you'd think more businesses would follow suit.

Loeb describes being impressed at how both Walmart and Germany's Metro have utilized RFID technology at their stores and in their warehouses, particularly at how merchandise is moved from the companies' warehouses to sales floors with managers able to monitor exactly how many items are moved to any given area. "I saw application both for apparel and hard lines," he reports. "I believe that RFID-processed merchandise also makes better, factual data available to management. That can lead to smarter purchase decisions and also give senior management better expense control since inventory accuracy is key to lower shrinkage and, thus, better profits."

That's high praise, and to see a website like Forbes offering it shows how far RFID has come from the days when it was something most people didn't know about. When I joined RFID Journal in 2005, a coworker at my previous job replied, upon hearing of my imminent employment change, "RFID? Oh, I think I've heard of that. That's E-ZPass, right? Yeah, I think that's E-Pass." Most of my other colleagues just blinked, not having known even that much. When I defined the term as "radio frequency identification," I watched their eyes gloss over.

It's true that RFID is used in E-Pass, an electronic tolling system deployed throughout the Eastern and Midwestern United States. But toll collection is far from the only—or the most important—use to which the technology has been applied. That was true in 2005, just as it is now. Yet that was the only application my coworkers or I knew about, largely because the media pretty much never discussed it. RFID had been in use for decades by that point, but the average person didn't know the term. Here we are, sixteen years later, and Forbes is encouraging businesses to embrace the technology, which means it knows its readers are aware of RFID and can understand why it could prove useful.

The world has been vastly changed by the pandemic, and companies have never relied more on RFID to survive than they do now. Don't take my word for it, though. Take Loeb's: "In these stressful times caused by COVID-19, such inventory control is most important. Merchandise on the shelf should be accounted for so that a customer's order can be filled. In times when extremely tight expense management is a high priority and leaner inventories are the rule of the day, every pierce of merchandise counts."

The implementation of an RFID solution can improve overall merchandise management, while accurate inventory tracking reduces losses, saves companies money, and can boost revenues. RFID Journal's readers have known this for years, and now those who read Forbes do as well, which is great news for the RFID sector. What matters most, Loeb writes, is that adopting RFID "can ensure more profitable performance since there is a more accurate accounting of the merchandise, wherever it is stored." With Forbes on board, maybe other mainstream news organizations will finally give the technology the credit it's due.

Rich Handley has been the managing editor of RFID Journal since 2005. Outside the RFID world, Rich has authored, edited or contributed to numerous books about pop culture.