Marks & Spencer Prepares To Expand Item-Level RFID Tagging

The retailer next year plans to add more items and stores to its radio-frequency identification test program.

Laurie Sullivan, Contributor

February 18, 2005

2 Min Read

Marks & Spencer Group plc next year will expand its test of putting radio-frequency identification on individual items to include clothes with complex sizes such as bras, women's suites and pants, and men's suites and pants. In spring 2006, the British retailer plans to tag individual items in six clothing departments across 53 stores, up from one department in nine stores today.

At the National Retail Federation conference in New York in January, James Stafford, head of RFID at Marks & Spencer, told attendees that for every man's suite there are 40 size variations and for every bra there are 68 size variations. "It's difficult to keep count and inventory up to date with 100% accuracy," he says. "The reality is our system always fails to be 100% accurate. RFID has enabled us to correct any errors in keeping track of the correct inventory rather than what the system says we have."

Marks & Spencer uses RFID tagging to track goods through its supply chain and in stores, since it lets employees quickly pass a handheld scanner past a rack of clothes to check inventory. The information on the RFID chip is unique to each product, while the bar code only relays what the product type is. Clerks will scan the bar code, not the RFID tag, at the register, to allay any customer concerns that the RFID information on unique items will be connected to the individual buyer, Marks & Spencer says. Customers will be given the option to remove the tag when the item is bought and before they leave the store.

Marks & Spencer initially had success in a two-month RFID trial on select men's suits, shirts, and ties at its High Wycombe store back in April 2003. A more-extensive six-store trial followed from March through June 2004. It monitored stock-availability improvements from clothing supplier Dewhirst plc to the Neasden distribution center and on to stores.

The first trials tested the technology and customer acceptance, and now the company is ready to expand to other stores and clothing lines using the same methods as in the past, with one exception: The RFID tag will be integrated into the bar-code label to eliminate an extra tag on the garment.

In the past, the RFID chip from EM Microelectronic had been contained in a throwaway "intelligent label" from Paxar Corp., a merchandising systems and label supplier to the apparel industry. It was attached to the garments but cut off before the clothing left the store. At the end of the sales day, clerks would use handheld readers from SAMSys Technologies running software from Intellident Ltd. and operating on 868 MHz to take inventory after the store had closed.

British Telecom has been chosen as the systems integrator, a spokeswoman for the U.K. retailer confirmed, but she wouldn't comment on the percentage of revenue these items contribute to overall sales.

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