Tagging Pots and Pans

After the global financial meltdown in September 2008, Walmart decided to stop requiring suppliers to tag pallets and cases. No other retailer had jumped on the radio frequency identification bandwagon, and Walmart was faced with either forcing suppliers to continue managing separate inventories (one tagged for Walmart, the other untagged for everyone else), or go in another direction. The company opted to go in a different direction and began tagging its private-label jeans (see Wal-Mart Relaunches EPC RFID Effort, Starting With Men’s Jeans and Basics and Wal-Mart Takes a New Approach to RFID).

Many journalists and business analysts, unaware of the change in Walmart’s direction, declared RFID all but dead. They said the technology doesn’t work around water or metal, limiting its value in retail and many other applications. After all, many products in stores (pots and pans) and in manufacturing (most machine parts) are composed of metal.

At the time, I considered selling RFID Journal for whatever pittance I could get for it, and starting a new website abour “enterprise mashups”—one of Gartner’s top 10 strategic technologies for 2009.

I’m kidding, of course. I never considered selling RFID Journal and never doubted that smart engineers would eventually overcome the challenges of tagging some products. Marks & Spencer has proved my faith in innovation to be justified. Our featured story this week provides an update on M&S’ RFID efforts (see Marks & Spencer Embraces Change). The retailer has decided to tag all non-food items at all of its stores, including—yes—pots and pans, as well as perfume and other tough-to-tag items.

Marks & Spencer worked closely with Avery Dennison Retail Branding and Information Solutions (RBIS) to design EPC Gen 2 RFID tags in different sizes and shapes for a wide range of merchandise, including items containing metal or liquids. The tags also had to meet the aesthetic requirements of cosmetics and other manufacturers. All told, there are 10 tag formats covering all of the items.

To ensure that tags could be interrogated on metal objects, cosmetics and perfumes, M&S conducted tests at a mock store located at the company’s headquarters. Once the team had ensured consistent, accurate tag reads on the various materials, the retailer began testing the tags at operational stores. Only when it was fully satisfied that it could achieve reliable tag reads did it make the decision to roll out the technology for all non-food items chain-wide.

We gave the 2014 RFID Journal Award for Best Implementation to Marks & Spencer for its RFID efforts (it shared the prize with a Bechtel construction application in eastern Australia; see RFID Helps Bechtel Manage a Megaproject). The retailer has paved the way for others to use RFID on items. Perhaps more important, M&S has put to rest the canard that RFID cannot be used around liquids and metal. I’m glad I didn’t throw in the towel and launch Enterprise Mashups Journal.

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.