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Maternity Apparel Maker Gives Birth to Smart Displays in Stores

Tomorrow's Mother says the RFID system provides timely, accurate inventory data, enabling the company to improve business processes and better meet customers' needs.
By Bob Violino
Oct 20, 2008—Founded in 1979, Tomorrow's Mother manufactures and markets maternity apparel throughout the United States and Canada. The company leases maternity departments in stores in the United States (Belk, Bergner's, Bon Ton, Boston Store, Carson Pirie Scott, Elder-Beerman, Herberger's and Younkers) and Canada (The Bay). Many of these retailers are located in small towns spread across North America, so it's challenging and time-consuming for Tomorrow's Mother's managers to regularly visit each location to perform manual counts of store inventory.

The company knew that timely, accurate inventory data was critical to achieving business success—and to keeping customers happy. If merchandise failed to move in a timely manner, retailers would clog up valuable shelf space in stores. At the same time, if items were consistently out of stock, there was a good chance customers would begin shopping elsewhere. To provide greater visibility of its garments and better management of its maternity departments in more than 380 stores, Tomorrow's Mother launched a project to deploy a smart-shelf system with RFID-enabled product displays from Seeonic, based in Minneapolis, Minn.

Seeking a new way to collect real-time data regarding garment inventory in all of its stores, Tomorrow's Mother began exploring RFID-based systems that could easily be deployed in maternity departments without impacting the department store's inventory systems.

It's difficult for Tomorrow's Mother to obtain a timely, accurate inventory of clothing items in each store, for a number of reasons. When merchandisers visit the stores, every two to four weeks, there are often errors due to manual counting. "In addition," says Harley Feldman, Seeonic's president and chief technology officer, "by the time the [Tomorrow's Mother] headquarters staff can collect the data and react to it, the on-hands inventory may have been changed significantly."

Another problem is that each department-store chain has a different point-of-sale (POS) system. "It would require information technology resources beyond the skills and financial resources of [Tomorrow's Mother] to connect to, accept data from and standardize the data from all of the sources required to get a complete picture of the current on-hands in each store," Feldman says. What's more, the POS data collected from the stores might be inaccurate and untimely. "It is collected infrequently," Feldman says, "and studying the data shows that it is different from actual on-hands in a majority of cases."

In 2007, managers at Tomorrow's Mother determined that they required a new way to collect real-time data regarding garment inventory in all of the stores, in order to improve processes. They began to explore RFID-based systems that could easily be deployed in the maternity departments without impacting the inventory systems used by the department stores.

Al Dittrich, president and CEO of Retail Associates, the St. Paul, Minn., company that owns and operates the Tomorrow's Mother stores, was familiar with various IT solutions available to retailers from his years as an executive at Target. But he determined that none of these solutions would be feasible or cost-effective for Tomorrow's Mother. Through an acquaintance, Dittrich had heard about RFID and immediately saw the technology's potential.
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