These Boots Were Made for Tracking: Nine West Tries On RFID Strategy

Footwear giant Nine West joins a long list of retailers in search of the RFID Holy Grail: item-level RFID tracking. Will the move be a good fit? Even the mighty Wal-Mart has struggled to cash in on this technology.

In mid-August, Jones Apparel group announced that one of its retailer divisions, Nine West, will soon start an item-level trial program using radio frequency identification (RFID) technologies.

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The goal of the pilot program, which will commence in "select" Nine West stores, "will be to study the benefits that item-level RFID provides in the areas of enhanced productivity, customer service and inventory accuracy," stated Jones Apparel executives.

Nine West is treading where many retailers and consumer-product goods manufacturers—Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, Gillette and Kimberly-Clark, to name just a few—have been for years: Trying to extract critical logistical data that item-level RFID tracking can, in theory, deliver to supply chain and merchandising functions. (See Kimberly-Clark's Secret to RFID Success for more on that consumer-good manufacturer's RFID efforts.)

Wal-Mart has been on the bleeding edge of RFID adoption since 2004, achieving varying levels of success along the way. In early 2008, though, Wal-Mart reconfirmed its commitment to its five-year RFID push among its hundreds of suppliers.

A Jan. 7 letter to Sam's Club suppliers (Wal-Mart owns Sam's Club) stated that they could face fines for not attaching RFID tags to their shipments to a Texas distribution center. Suppliers were informed of the possible fines, which ranged from $2 to $3 for each non-RFID-tagged pallet.

The Trials and Tribulations of RFID in Retail

Success with RFID in today's retail supply chain has been spotty, even more so at the item level. A recent Forrester Research report on the ROI of RFID for supply chain visibility noted that "amid the hype, the business value of deploying RFID technology across trading partners has been blurred by questions about costs, benefits and scope, and answers are elusive."

Economics of the tag costs relative to the value of the item being tagged have dogged many a manufacturer, notes the report. (All of the aforementioned challenges are nothing new; the same issues have been front and center in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.)

Research released in August 2008 by the RFID Research Center at the University of Arkansas showed further promise for the use of RFID tags on individual retail items, though there were several disconcerting challenges noted in the study. According to the results, not all tags and RFID tag readers are created equal, and there were a "wide range of read rates based on tag type and reader type." In addition, tag placement on merchandise was critical for success—standards "regarding the location of tags on items to ensure proper readability" are key.

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