The Right Way to Encode RFID Tags for Consumer Products

By Ken Traub

Brand owners, retailers and solution providers must understand how to use the SGTIN standard.


Recently, an IT executive from a sporting goods man­ufacturer told me his company was beginning to RFID-tag products in its own retail stores to im­prove inventory operations. The solution provider the company was working with asked: “Do you want to encode the tag with text or hexadecimal?” The company had no idea how to answer, and asked me for help.

I told him neither option is good. The company should use a global standard: Serialized Global Trade Item Number (SGTIN). That’s because brand owners and retailers worldwide have agreed to identify consumer products with EPC Gen 2 ultrahigh-frequency RFID tags and encode each with an SGTIN number.

The SGTIN is so widely accepted because it builds on the Universal Product Code (UPC) bar code that is on nearly all consumer goods and can be scanned by all point-of-sale systems. Retailers outside of North America use the European Article Number (EAN) bar code, which has one more digit than the UPC but is part of the same standard.

The GTIN number that is encoded into the UPC or EAN bar code distinguishes one product from another. All like items—say, Brand X 123 Skis—have the identical GTIN, but no two products anywhere in the world have the same GTIN. The SGTIN is a combination of the GTIN plus a unique serial number that distinguishes identical items from each other. This enables suppliers and retailers to use an RFID reader to manage inventory.

There is a specific way to encode an SGTIN into an RFID tag. This is defined by GS1‘s EPC Tag Data Standard, which tells us how to map the digits of the SGTIN into specific locations within an RFID tag’s memory. This mapping is called the SGTIN-96—a specific arrangement of 96 bits of tag memory. To learn how to set up your printer-encoder software, see RFID-Labeling Apparel Items; the method is the same for nonapparel retail items.

I explained to the IT executive that if the company used either the text or hexadecimal option, no RFID system would know how to decode the tags. The solution provider would have to develop a custom system, and the company would be locked into a solution that was incompatible with all other RFID systems used in retail today.

Moreover, if the retailer carried merchandise from other companies that was identified with RFID tags encoded with SGTINs, those tags would interfere with the custom system. Worse, other retailers might not want to carry his company’s sporting goods, because the tags could interfere with their systems.

I’m shocked that, in 2015, with billions of SGTIN-96 tags being used in consumer retail every year, this solution provider seemed totally unaware of the widely accepted global industry standard. Don’t make the same mistake. Before you hire a solution provider for an RFID retail project, be sure it uses and is well versed in the SGTIN-96 standard.

Ken Traub is the founder of Ken Traub Consulting, a Massachusetts-based firm providing services to companies that rely on advanced software technology to run their businesses. Send your software questions to