Marks & Spencer (M&S) is one of the United Kingdom's leading retailers, with some 760 stores and more than 21 million people visiting its retail establishments each week to shop for high-quality clothing, home products and innovative food items. The company is also a pioneer in the use of radio frequency identification. In 2001, M&S began attaching re-useable RFID tags to food trays, to track deliveries of fresh food between its suppliers and distribution centers—and to determine how well the technology functioned. It worked so well, the company reports, that approximately 10 million RFID-tagged food trays are now constantly shuttled around M&S' supply chain, and the firm also tracks trays containing fresh flowers and plants.
All suppliers write information to the tags regarding the content and expiry dates of the items on the trays. The tags are read upon entry to receiving depots, and are used to ensure the rapid shipment of fresh merchandise to M&S' stores. Empty trays are returned to the suppliers for washing, and are then re-filled and re-coded.
Based on this initial deployment's success, M&S' executives determined that RFID had the potential to track inventory within its stores. In 2004, the retailer launched a major RFID effort, deploying a system to tag and track some clothing items at several locations (see Marks & Spencer to Tag Items at 120 Stores). The trial, partially funded by the U.K.'s Department of Trade and Industry as part of the New Wave Technology program, involved tagging roughly 10,000 items, including men's suits, shirts and ties (see Marks & Spencer Expands RFID Trial). Here, too, RFID proved it was up to the job, and the company has since expanded the deployment to 550 U.K. stores and additional types of clothing, such as men's formal and casual trousers, jackets and shirts, as well as ladies' knitwear, coats, formal and casual trousers, and suits.
Approximately a year and a half ago, company executives decided it was time to upgrade Marks and Spencer's early RFID implementation and expand the technology's use to include home goods, such as bedding, accessories and kitchenware. M&S will replace its systems with newer RFID technology, including EPC Gen 2 read-write tags and readers. "The technology has moved forward and continues to move forward," says Kim Phillips, M&S' head of packaging. The firm expects to see more impressive results in terms of return on investment with the newer systems, he says, "because Gen 2 technology is far more cost-effective, more accurate and faster."
In fact, Phillips says, the plans to expand RFID within the company are so significant that M&S now views its initial deployments as lengthy "pilot programs" serving as a prelude to what will be a major strategic endeavor to leverage the technology. The company began deploying Gen 2 tags in spring 2012. It is rolling out the new system throughout its store operations during 2013, he says, and expects to have all the new Gen 2 readers in place and all its apparel and hard goods RFID-tagged by spring 2014.
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