RFID Goes to Bat Against Gray Market for DeMarini Sports

By Claire Swedberg

A UHF RFID system from Entigral enables the high-end aluminum and composite bat manufacturer to link its products to a particular retailer, thereby tracing any gray-market sale items directly to the store of origin.

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Sporting goods company DeMarini Sports is employing radio frequency identification technology to track its baseball and softball bats, thereby ensuring the integrity of the supply chain for its high-value products. An ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID solution provided by Entrigal Systems makes it possible for the firm to automatically create a record of each bat’s shipment to a specific retailer, so that if the bat turns up listed elsewhere—for instance, for sale on eBay—the company can identify the original retailer to which that item was shipped.

DeMarini sells fastpitch and slowpitch baseball equipment and apparel, including its aluminum and composite bats that typically cost $200 to $500 apiece. The company assembles the bats at its facility in Hillsboro, Ore., and ships approximately 3,000 of them daily to retailers worldwide. The retailers then sell the bats at prices set by DeMarini. At times, however, the bats turn up on eBay or other websites at lower prices.

When shipping a bat to a retailer, DeMarini encodes an RFID label (shown at the bottom of the photo), affixes it to a box and places the bat inside.

“We’ve been a high-end bat manufacturer for 20 years,” says Nate Baldwin, DeMarini’s plant manager. “But in the last five years, with the move toward e-commerce, we’ve had problems with the gray market.” Unknown individuals have gotten their hands on the unsold bats, he explains, and have sold them below the manufacturer-advertised price (MAP). That’s a problem, he notes—not only for the brand image, but for the stores that must compete with those online sales.

Some of DeMarini’s larger retail sellers have complained to the manufacturer, asking them to shut those sales down, but that’s not so easy to do. Although DeMarini can purchase the bats off those websites, the company cannot typically determine how the seller received them in the first place.

The company began working with Entrigal this year. In June, it fully launched a solution enabling it to automatically identify each bat, and link each bat’s ID number to a particular customer’s shipment.

Although RFID would provide a fast, automated method of collecting data about each bat as it shipped, there were some challenges in implementing the technology, says Mark Gemberling, Entrigal’s sales and marketing VP.

DeMarini wanted to be able to track each bat individually by incorporating an RFID tag inside that bat. However, most low-cost RFID tags, if placed inside aluminum or composite bats, would be difficult to read due to the RF interference caused by either of these materials, as well as their orientation when the bats are stacked together in large shipments.

In addition, the bats are very carefully engineered to provide the best performance, and the insertion of an RFID tag could interfere with a bat’s weight balance. Not only that, Baldwin says, but a tag inside a bat would be subject to extreme conditions based on how hard players swing the bat to hit balls. “We almost gave up,” Baldwin says.

Instead, DeMarini opted for an alternative solution recommended by Entigral. The suggested system involved using serialized ID numbers in the form of 2D bar codes.

First, early in the assembly process at the Hillsboro site, a worker prints an adhesive 2D bar-code label and attaches it to the bat. The bat is taken to an etching machine, which scans the bar-code label’s unique ID and automatically etches that same serial number (this time in human-readable form) into the side of the bat. The bat then continues through the rest of the assembly process, such as the addition of the handle and end cap.

DeMarini’s Nate Baldwin

The etching of the serial number itself is not new, Baldwin reports. The company had already been etching a serial number onto each of its bats, in order to meet the needs of baseball leagues that wanted to maintain a record of which bats were rejected for a game for any reason. The bats did not, however, have bar-code labels attached to them.

After the etching process is completed, bats are then prepared for shipment to fill customer orders. Before each bat is inserted into a box, the bar-code label is scanned. A Zebra Technologies ZT410 series RFID printer is used to print and encode an adhesive label with an embedded EPC UHF Invengo Shamrock RFID tag. The bat’s stock-keeping unit (SKU) number and the date are printed as text on the label, and the serial ID is printed in the form of a 2D bar code. At the same time, a unique ID number is encoded to the RFID tag’s Impinj Monza 4 chip. The tag’s unique ID is linked to the serial number in Entigral’s TraxWare software, and is forwarded to the company’s SAP software. The bat is then placed in a box, and the RFID label is affixed to the end of that box.

In the case of large orders, the RFID-tagged boxes are stacked on a pallet, typically 300 per pallet, in such a way that each box’s RFID label faces out. The pallet is then transported to the stretch-wrap area, where a Zebra FX9500 fixed reader is installed. The SAP software pulls up the shipping order information, and as the pallet spins around for its stretch-wrapping process, the reader also captures each bat’s ID number. The Entigral software forwards this information to the SAP software, Gemberling explains, so that a permanent record is created regarding which bat was shipped to which customer. The pallet takes several minutes to be fully stretch-wrapped, while the reading process lasts about 30 seconds.

For smaller orders, DeMarini’s staff uses a Zebra MC3190-Z handheld reader to capture the tag IDs and link them to the shipment.

The system was taken live this past summer, Baldwin says, and in the few months since then, the company has already begun to identify the origins of some gray-market bat sales. As a result, the manufacturer has ended its relationship with one seller that was connected to multiple gray-market sales. “Our goal is to eliminate, as much as possible, the gray market that is driving down the MAP,” he says. “This keeps our honest retailers happy and keeps our brand image high.”

In the future, DeMarini intends to use an RFID reader to track inventory in its finished-products storage area prior to shipping. In so doing, the company can have a clear idea of which products are ready for shipping. The firm sells out its complete line of products each year, with an entirely new line of goods launched on an annual basis. Baldwin speculates that DeMarini will probably install fixed readers in its finished-products storage area to accomplish this goal, since bats are stacked on very high racks, which would make the tags difficult to read using a handheld.