Ralph Lauren EU Boosts RFID Tag Read Safety, Efficiency with Shelfie Stick

By Claire Swedberg

The extendable device, developed by RFID Sherpas, enables the retailer to nearly eliminate the use of ladders when employees conduct daily RFID-based inventory counts, reducing count times and injury risk.

As Mark Berryman,  Ralph Lauren EU's project manager, watched sales associates count inventory using RFID readers in the back of the company's Paris store last year, he didn't like what he witnessed. At the time, he was being visited by the company's RFID consultant,  RFID Sherpas' John-Pierre (JP) Kamel, and the two men watched the sales staff slide ladders into position and climb up to read tags on goods located up to 9 feet high, then step down, move the ladder and begin again.

To speed up the process, workers sometimes reached sideways, even while perched on the ladder, defying gravity to read more tags. This posed a safety concern, Berryman says, as well as a time-consuming practice. "We had the same reaction together," he recalls, and Kamel suggested a solution he had developed for other clients in the past year: an extendable device known as a Shelfie Stick. Designed for RFID tag reads, the stick—which RFID Sherpas has patented—has since saved Ralph Lauren approximately 40 percent of its previous RFID counting time, while boosting tag read accuracy.

Ralph Lauren began deploying RFID in Europe in 2019, first testing the technology at some of its largest stores, then expanding to smaller ones across Europe, with all locations fully equipped with the technology this year. The RFID system is being used to manage inventory in back rooms and at store fronts, with passive UHF RFID tags are attached at the source. The company employs  Zebra 8500 handheld readers at each store to capture the unique ID numbers of  Avery Dennison tags attached to goods.

One challenge that Ralph Lauren's employees face while counting inventory each day is how to read tags on items stacked on the highest shelves. The European stores, Berryman explains, tend to be densely stocked with the products sold in the store front. In some cases, that means goods are stacked on shelves up to 9 feet high in back rooms, and sometimes just as high on the sales floor.

Reading the tags on products located on the high shelves proved challenging for other reasons in Europe, where the racks are primarily made of metal, as opposed to those in North America and other areas, where they tend to be composed of wood. Metal can cause RF reflections that make UHF RFID tag reads more challenging for those carrying handheld readers.

As a result, tag reads were not as accurate as the company had hoped they'd be, especially for those who didn't use ladders. However, Kamel says, when ladders are added into the mix, "It can be a safety and health question." Prior to that meeting at Ralph Lauren's Paris store, Kamel had already developed the Shelfie Stick for some of RFID Sherpas' other clients to make it easier for those reading RFID tags.

Historically, the company has provided only consultancy, without selling hardware, software or tags. "That's never been what we do," Kamel says, adding, "We are vendor-agnostic." About three years ago, he discovered that companies were struggling with RFID inventory counting in high spaces. Kamel visited a local hardware store and assembled a solution that would extend the reach of the average retail worker. It was a simple, extendable stick into which readers could be attached, he says.

RFID Sherpas' JP Kamel

The representatives showed the contraption to a client in the United States, which requested 150 units. What the retailer soon learned was that the Shelfie Stick improved inventory counts in several ways. "They've been a huge win," Berryman reports, "because not only do they help from a health and safety perspective, but they make inventory counts faster." He later modified the device further to change the metal to a composite material, thereby making it lighter to carry. The latest version includes a grabber that can hold and shake a box, thereby increasing the probability that workers will successfully read the tags of all item stored within.


The company has since taken on manufacturing the Shelfie Stick and selling it to clients. The device, when fully extended, measures 60 inches in length, so workers standing on the floor can typically reach shelves up to around 10 feet high. Employees found that the stick can also be flipped over to count low shelves, preventing the need to bend their knees. The readers used with the stick have included those from Zebra and  Nordic ID, as well as  Nedap's RFID wand.

Ralph Lauren EU's Mark Berryman

The Shelfie Stick comes with two different kinds of attachments: one universal, the other made specifically for Zebra's 8500 reader, to provide a snug fit customized for that reader's form factor. RFID Sherpas' clients typically buy the devices in quantities of 60 to several hundred, Kamel says. Most retailers have numerous stores at which the sticks have been deployed, and while RFID Sherpas previously only sold them to its existing clients, it now plans to offer them to the public for around $200 apiece. The device is now being made in its second version. "We've gone through a few iterations to make them even better," he states.

According to Berryman, Ralph Lauren realized a return on its investment in the Shelfie Sticks within about five weeks, based on a reduction in inventory count times, while the safety aspect was paramount. After testing a few at one store, he says, "It became a no-brainer." Store associates typically have one hour to complete daily inventory counts, sometimes with four individuals simultaneously counting goods. The Shelfie Stick has not only cut count times for back-room inventory by 40 percent, Berryman reports, but it has also increased the accuracy of tags reads by approximately 0.7 percent.

The retailer has adopted the Shelfie Stick at each of its 65 EU stores as RFID technology has been launched at those locations for the purpose of improving inventory management. A full rollout was completed in March of this year. The simple, extendable nature of the device reminds Berryman of an old British adage: In the 1960s, the United States spent a million dollars to make a pen that would work in space, whereas Russia used a pencil. Sometimes, he explains, simplicity serves the best solution.