Tagging Sellable Units

By Mark Roberti

Sam's Club has spelled out an aggressive timetable for item-level tracking. Help is at hand, so suppliers can successfully tag a wide variety of products and achieve internal benefits.


I’ve been thinking a lot about sellable units lately. I know what you’re thinking: Roberti needs to get a life. Hey, a big part of my life is spent helping people use radio frequency identification technologies to improve the way they do business. The main reason I’ve been thinking about sellable units is that several Sam’s Club suppliers have contacted me asking whether I think it’s feasible for all of that retailer’s suppliers to be tagging every sellable unit by Oct. 31, 2010.

Before I answer that question, let me provide a little background. In January, Sam’s Club sent a letter to suppliers informing them of its requirements for tagging pallets and individual shipments with RFID (see Sam’s Club Tells Suppliers to Tag or Pay and Sam’s Club Letter Shakes Things Up). In the letter, Sam’s indicated it would charge suppliers that did not tag pallets by the end of that month a $2 fee per pallet, to cover the cost of Sam’s doing the tagging itself.

The fee got everyone’s attention, but the bigger news was that suppliers would be required to tag all individual items on a pallet being shipped to Sam’s Club’s DeSoto, Texas, distribution center—or directly to stores serviced by that DC—by Oct. 31, 2009. Suppliers must tag items shipped to the company’s Kansas City, Dayton, Searcy and Villa Rica DCs by Jan. 30, 2010, and to all 22 DCs by Oct. 31, 2010. For Sam’s, a sellable unit is an individually packaged product, such as a DVD player or swimming pool—or, since Sam’s is a wholesaler that sells products in bulk, a sellable unit could be a case of bottled water, canned soup or beer.

I’ve been spending some time at my local Sam’s Club examining the various types of units the store sells. There is a very wide variety—much wider than I realized, in fact. Here’s a small, random sample from the retailer’s Long Island locatoin: fresh flowers, bags of frozen shrimp, ceramic bowls, shirts, computer mice, blenders, tubs of margarine, barrels of oil, bags of bananas, bottles of wine, bags of potato chips, steaks and boxes of diapers. That’s a big assortment—and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

To tag all of these sellable units, companies are going to need to figure out where to place a tag on each type of product. But that’s only the beginning. They’ll also need to evaluate and choose Electronic Product Code (EPC) tags, interrogators and middleware. They’ll need to determine how to tag at high speeds without slowing their production line. They’ll need to integrate the tagging operation with their back end so the proper EPC is associated with the right product automatically. And instead of taking a slap-and-ship approach to tagging, they should ascertain how they could benefit internally, which would help offset the cost of applying tags to each item sold.

That’s a lot to accomplish within a year or two, so I think it will be tough for Sam’s Club and its suppliers to track every single sellable unit shipped to Sam’s by the Oct. 31, 2010 deadline. I would not be surprised if Sam’s opts, based on feedback from suppliers and its own deployment experiences, to relax the deadline somewhat, or to initially require only a group of top suppliers to begin tagging sellable units. (I can already see the articles misconstruing natural project adjustments as “Sam’s Backing Off RFID Mandate.”)

But Sam’s is clearly serious about moving quickly toward tracking sellable units. The good news is, there’s more help available now than when Wal-Mart first announced it would require its top 100 suppliers to begin tagging pallets and cases by January 2005. RFID Journal has been working with EPCglobal to educate suppliers at EPC Connection 2008, the organization’s fifth annual conference and exhibition, which will be held Oct. 14-16 in Chicago.

A special preconference seminar, EPC Compliance & Benefits Training, will help companies understand the basics of what they need to do to become EPC-compliant. This will include how to associate EPCs with the correct product, find the right place to put the RFID tag and link the EPC tagging operation with their back end, and will touch on the value of the data suppliers get back from their retail partners.

There also will be a two-day Implementation Track that will go into greater depth about integrating EPC tagging systems with back-end systems to automate the tagging process (slap and ship is not an option when you’re tagging large numbers of individual items). This track will offer insights into how early adopters managed the complexity of high-volume tagging operations. It will explain what suppliers can do with the EPC data they receive back from their retail partners, and there will be a question-and-answer session to address the issues on attendees’ minds.

In addition, RFID Journal is producing a Guide to Meeting Sam’s Club’s RFID EPC Tagging Requirements, which will provide detailed information on how to meet tagging requirements cost-effectively. This step-by-step guide will cover everything from setting up a team and creating a plan to integrating EPC tagging with IT and manufacturing systems. It will also reveal how and where to tag specific categories of sellable units.

All EPC Connection attendees will receive the guide for free, so they can return to their company with a document detailing everything they need to do to become compliant. This should help companies get up the learning curve quickly. Once they understand what they need to do, they can create a plan, evaluate vendors and move quickly to implement tagging at the sellable unit, as well as work to achieve internal benefits.

Given what we’ve learned since the first wave of suppliers began tagging for Wal-Mart in 2005, I think it is possible to meet the aggressive sellable unit deadline—provided companies don’t make the mistake of thinking the requirement will go away if they just do nothing. From what I can see, Sam’s is serious about this, and smart firms will begin working toward compliance today.

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 or click here.