The View From NRF

By Mark Roberti

RFID technology is beginning to seep into the consciousness of more retailers.

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I attended the National Retail Federation‘s Big Show last week, as I do every year (see Big (Bad) Data and Thoughts From NRF’s Big Show). Radio frequency identification has not been an important topic at the event since 2004, when Linda Dillman, then the CIO of Walmart, gave a general-session speech about the technology. But it seems that word regarding the benefits some retailers are achieving from deploying item-level RFID is spreading, because this year’s attendees showed more interest in the technology. The event included a few sessions about RFID technology and had several RFID exhibitors.

During a session titled “Achieving Omni-Channel Success With Standards-Based Supply Chain Processes,” Peter Longo, the president of Macy’s logistics operations, stated unequivocally that the visibility RFID provides is necessary for a successful omni-channel strategy. That sent some retailers scurrying to the booths of Motorola Solutions, Avery Dennison, Smartrac Technology and a few other RFID technology providers. Interesting, Mike Molitor, Kohl’s Corp.‘s senior VP of e-commerce, was on the panel but did not say much about RFID, even though it was announced at the event that Kohl’s is rolling out the technology (see Kohl’s Rolls Out RFID for Select Product Categories at Its Stores).

I hosted a panel titled “Apparel RFID: Enhancing the Customer Experience,” with Pam Sweeney, Macy’s senior VP of logistics systems, Bill Hardgrave, dean and Wells Fargo Professor at Auburn University‘s Harbert College of Business, and Francisco Melo, the VP of global RFID at Avery Dennison’s Retail Branding and Information Solutions (RBIS) division. The session was held in the far back right corner of the lower level exhibit hall at 9:15 am. I thought the remote location at such an early hour would mean an empty room, but nearly 200 people attended.

The panel brought attendees up to-date on the state of RFID adoption in the retail industry. Hardgrave took the audience through recent history, and explained why there is so much emphasis on tracking unique items in stores. He said 20 of the top 30 U.S. retailers are already rolling out the technology, or are seriously considering doing so.

Sweeney reported that Macy’s is seeing stronger sales in categories in which a greater number of items are being tagged relative to other categories. She noted that suppliers that are tagging more of the stock-keeping units (SKUs) they ship to Macy’s are seeing stronger sales than those tagging fewer SKUs. “It’s really a good business decision to tag more products,” she stated.

I had a chance to sit down and talk with Shawn Neville, the president of Avery Dennison RBIS. He indicated that RFID’s adoption in retail is showing signs of gaining momentum, and that Avery received a lot of enquiries about the technology at its booth.

Mike Poldino, the VP and general manager of Motorola Solutions’ RFID division, was equally upbeat. “The year ended strong for us,” he said. “The RFID industry is doing well. I don’t see any discontinuities. We are expecting growth in 2014. Retailers understand the value of RFID now, and there are many retailers that are in various phases of adoption, from piloting to rolling out.”

I spent some time at Intel‘s booth, which had a lot of cool technology related to retail. The booth featured three of Impinj‘s xArray reader systems strung from the ceiling, covering the entire booth (which measured about 1,000 square feet), and Intel projected a heat map of traffic at the booth, based on data collected from reading the tags of all staff members, partners, public relations people, greeters and so forth. There was a lot of interest among retailers, who seemed to like the idea of real-time data, rather than having workers conduct cycle counts using handheld readers.

Hardgrave told retailers, “If you are not looking at RFID seriously, you are already behind.” Perhaps some retailers will now be inspired to attend RFID Journal LIVE! to learn what RFID could do for them. Our 12th annual conference and exhibition, taking place in Orlando, Fla., on Apr. 8-10, will include the Item-Level Retail and Apparel Workshop preconference seminar, a keynote presentation from Marks & Spencer‘s Kim Phillips and a Retail/Apparel track. Most RFID companies with solutions for retail will be exhibiting at the event, so I hope to see you there as well.

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.