Push-Button Inventory

By Mark Roberti

We are getting closer to the day when a company can push a button and obtain an accurate inventory count.

Ever since I founded RFID Journal, I have heard one thing from CEOs: "I would like to be able to push a button and get an accurate inventory count of everything in my store or warehouse." I have always told these executives that would not be possible—at least not at a cost they would be willing to pay. But that is changing, beginning in the retail apparel sector.

Last week, we published an article about American Apparel's use of fixed readers and overhead antennas in two stores (see American Apparel Deploys Real-Time, Storewide RFID Inventory-Management Solution). These devices provide an accurate, real-time inventory count of everything within the store. That's interesting. But what's more interesting is that the cost of the fixed reader solution is competitive with systems requiring employees to take inventory using handheld interrogators.

To provide a little context, apparel retailers deploying RFID systems have chosen to equip staff members with handheld readers. Similar systems have been deployed at some warehouses worldwide. While paying people to perform inventory counts once weekly involves labor costs, this was assumed to be less expensive than equipping shelves and racks with a large number of fixed readers in order to identify tags all the time.

The system that American Apparel installed, provided by a company called Senitron, divides a store into zones. The solution can tell managers that an item is located in a specific zone within the store, as well as read all tags within the store, thereby giving managers real-time inventory visibility at the push of a button.

This offers some advantages over the handheld-based system American Apparel has been using. One benefit is that inventory counts can be conducted in real time. With handhelds, you only receive an inventory update when store associates are dispatched to perform a cycle count. Another is that the fixed reader system does not require people to remember to take inventory—and it lets store associates focus on serving customers.

I believe that handheld readers will always be useful tools in retail applications (as well for manufacturing and supply chain operations), even if a company deploys a fixed reader solution. Handhelds enable employees to perform spot checks, conduct inventory counts in areas that might not be covered by a fixed reader system and help locate items that might be in a different zone but need to be found quickly.

It's also unclear whether an overhead fixed reader solution will work for every situation. Clothing is RF-friendly. It might be more challenging to read tags at stores that carry products that are composed of liquid or are packaged in metal cans. Such solutions might not work well in warehouses that contain a lot of metal racks or stock metal parts.

But what the American Apparel deployment demonstrates, I think, is that RFID technology is improving rapidly, and the day when you'll be able to obtain an accurate inventory count at the push of a button might not be that far away. And that, I know, will make a lot of CEOs very happy.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark's opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog, the Editor's Note archive or RFID Connect.