John Lewis Rolling Out RFID Across All Fashion Goods

By Claire Swedberg

The UHF RFID solution, provided by Checkpoint Systems, currently includes 25,000 SKUs that are tagged at the source or by a third party, and are then tracked by branch employees at 34 locations across the United Kingdom.

U.K. department store retailer John Lewis has deployed ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) EPC RFID technology at 34 of its 46 stores to improve inventory management of key fashion products. The rollout took place during the course of just three months late last year, and 25,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs) across lingerie, sleepwear, swimwear and men's formal wear are now being tracked at those locations via RFID readers (see The John Lewis Success Story: From Pilot to Deployment).

The company opted to deploy RFID tagging for entire product SKUs to make the deployment simpler to manage, says Rob Mitchell, John Lewis's manager of selling support. "This volume will increase through 2017 as we roll out to more assortments," Mitchell reports. By early 2018, the retailer expects all apparel to be tagged during three additional phases.

John Lewis's Rob Mitchell

The solution is provided by security technology company Checkpoint Systems, which offers software and integration services, with tags from Avery Dennison and handheld RFID readers provided by Zebra Technologies.

The handheld readers are deployed at all of the 34 branches, and the Checkpoint software to manage the collected read data resides on the retailer's centralized server. There, the software provides reporting for central and branch operational teams.

Since the system was taken live late last year, Mitchell reports, the increase in on-shelf availability provided by the system has boosted sales. An additional benefit is a reduction in stock levels, he says, since the company no longer needs to store as much inventory at branches in case product may run out "We can better direct our replenishment effort," Mitchell states, "and stock levels have been reduced as we have been better able to trust the stock figures and, therefore, remove contingency stock."

John Lewis, the United Kingdom's leading department store retailer, is owned by the John Lewis Partnership. Before this deployment, the company embarked on an RFID pilot in 2014 and 2015 at three branches across a few select fashion items. Based on that pilot's success, the store decided to roll out the system on a universal level across entire SKUs. Approximately 80 percent of all tagged products are being tagged at the point of manufacture, Mitchell explains, while the remaining 20 percent are being tagged by a third party.

Once tags are applied to garments, each tag's unique ID number is stored along with the corresponding SKU in the inventory-management software. The tags are first interrogated at the store branch by sales personnel during receiving. From that point, the tags can be read for regular inventory counts, in order to ensure that products are replenished on store shelves as they are sold, and to prevent out-of-stocks.

The department store sells products from a large number of suppliers. Thus far, about 100 of these companies are applying RFID tags to products destined for John Lewis stores. The firm chose to start using RFID readers at stores only (as opposed to distribution centers), where the greatest impact would be felt by customers since RFID tag reading at the store level boosts onsite inventory accuracy.

With the RFID data being collected, the retailer has now been challenged with determining how to analyze the large volume of information. "Now that we are more familiar with the data available," Mitchell states, "we are looking to refine our reporting this year so that it is easy to highlight key metrics."

Although handheld RFID readers are providing an improvement in inventory accuracy, Mitchell says, fixed readers could offer more automated data collection as products are moved to the sales floor. "We are interested in potential uses of transitional readers to track movement of stock from stock room to shop floor," he adds, "but have not begun any work on this as yet."

In the future, Mitchell reports, the company may expand its RFID use to to non-fashion lines such as linens. Such linens come in a variety of sizes, he says, making inventory management challenging, and would thus benefit from RFID management. "Once we have enough of our assortment tagged," he states, "we may look beyond the core functionality of RFID to see how it could be used to enhance the customer experience in areas such as fitting rooms."

In 2014, the retailer's flagship store launched a pilot involving RFID-tagged furniture shapes and fabric samples, allowing customers to view selected chairs, sofas and coverings displayed on a computer monitor (see John Lewis Store to Furnish Its Customers With RFID).