Retailers Struggle With Supply Chains Under Stress

By Mark Roberti

Without RFID, retailers don't know what they have in their stores or their supply chains; as a result, they are struggling to deliver the right goods to the correct customers at the proper time.

Like most of the world, I have been sheltering in place for the past two months. And like most people, I have had to make purchases for food, gardening materials and other items. My experience with retailers has mostly not been very good.

The online retailers have gotten something of a black eye from third-party sellers that promise healthcare materials but then can't deliver. We ordered masks in mid-February from Amazon. They never arrived and we never received any updates regarding their shipping status. After two months, we canceled our order.

We also ordered a pulse oximeter from Walmart. It was due to be delivered in early May. It's now mid-May. If third-party suppliers were using RFID technology, they could share data about their inventory with their retail partners, including Amazon and Walmart, and sell only what was available in stock.

Purchases from food retailers through delivery services have also been spotty. We've tried several companies that shop for you and deliver the goods. On several occasions, we received things we didn't order, while not receiving items we'd requested. If retailers were using RFID to manage in-store inventory levels, companies like Instacart could shop the aisles with a handheld RFID reader, quickly identify the items they needed to pick and verify orders before checking out and making deliveries.

I've been working on my garden during the past few weekends, and my experiences with Home Depot have been among the most challenging. First, I ordered two raised herb gardens to grow some basil, oregano and thyme, since we often need small quantities of fresh herbs and it's harder now to just run out and get them. We used curbside pickup, but when we got home, both garden beds were damaged.

We also ordered some landscape stones. The website said there were fourteen bags in stock at our local store. We ordered all fourteen. A couple of days went buy and there was still no confirmation that we could pick up our order at the store, so we called and were told they could only locate eleven bags. No problem, we said. We'll take the eleven. We picked up those eleven bags, and we appreciated the curbside service. We pulled up at our local Home Depot, where employees loaded the bags into our trunk and we pulled away. We didn't have to put ourselves at risk and neither did the staff.

A few days later, my wife received an email saying our eleven bags of landscape stones were available for pickup. She ignored it. She then received another email. Finally, the store called and asked her to come and pick up her order. She informed the store that we had already done so. Of course, had we been less honest, we could have gotten eleven bags of stone for free.

Had Home Depot been using RFID, it would have been able to show the correct inventory numbers online. That would have reduced the delay in finding and delivering our order. RFID readers could also have been set up in the curbside pickup area and could have automatically detected the eleven bags being collected by the customer.

I understand that supply chains and stores are under stress due to the global pandemic, but supply chains also become stressed during predictable peak periods, such as holidays. The point is, having RFID to manage inventory allows you to deal with these challenges more effectively.

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal.