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Marks & Spencer Embraces Change

Based on the benefits achieved from RFID-tracking all apparel—and recognizing the importance of omnichannel shopping—the U.K. retailer plans to tag all general merchandise in stores.
By Samuel Greengard
Jun 18, 2014

In 2012, Marks & Spencer (M&S) made a bold but calculated decision. The London-based clothing and merchandise retailer, which has been using RFID to track and manage apparel items since 2003, decided to extend its RFID-tagging initiative to all general merchandise. M&S is rolling out the solution and plans to have it implemented by spring 2015. When M&S completes the project, all merchandise at 750 of the company's U.K. stores will be identified with RFID tags. In addition, M&S will employ RFID at 200 factories in 20 countries.

M&S, which earned £10.0 billion (U.S. $16.8 billion) in revenues for 2013, now operates 766 stores in the United Kingdom and 418 stores internationally, selling a variety of merchandise and food products. More than 21 million customers visit its stores every week. Its website attracts 3.6 million visitors per week. "We are implementing large-scale revolutionary change that spans our supply chain, stores, Web platform and IT infrastructure, creating a sound base for sustainable future growth," says M&S Chairman Robert Swannell.

The tags had to meet the aesthetic requirements of cosmetic and other manufacturers. (Photo: Marks & Spencer)
The move to RFID-tagging home goods (such as bedding and kitchenware), jewelry, cosmetics and gifts is based on the benefits the company has achieved from tracking all apparel at all its stores and the recognition that mobility and more sophisticated digital tools are changing things, says Kim Phillips, M&S' head of packaging.

RFID has enabled the company to meet its goal of serving as "the store in which you can always find your size." That's no small task, given M&S stocks a complex mix of sizes and styles. M&S flagship stores, for example, stock as many as 25,000 bras, in roughly 60 combinations of back widths and cup sizes, in a variety of colors and styles. Similarly, the company sells jackets and pants in 20 different size combinations and various color combinations. To improve real-time inventory tracking, optimize stock levels and ensure the correct product mix is always on display in stores, M&S will use more than 400 million RFID tags this year.

The EPC Gen 2 tags come in different sizes and shapes for a wide range of merchandise, including items that contain metal or liquids.
The other motivating factor to tag all merchandise was the recognition that the company is "operating in an omnichannel world that transcends traditional marketing boundaries," Phillips says. Customers now want a seamless experience, whether they are shopping in a store, on a mobile device or at a home computer. Within this environment, he says, "There is an absolute need for stock accuracy. The use of RFID technology to replace manual methods of stock counting and stock checking is just another step in the ongoing digital revolution."

Building on the Benefits
To be sure, the move to tagging every piece of merchandise required extensive planning—despite the firm's previous experience with RFID (see Marks & Spencer Rolls Out RFID to All Its Stores). M&S had to thoroughly understand workflow, product flow and customer behavior. "In different categories, the causes of an out-of-stock item may be different from those related to clothing, but the problems of identifying it and managing it remain the same," Phillips says.

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