The wide diversity and large benefit of RFID technology implementation and application in the warehousing, distribution, and general wholesaling operations of the supply chain, as well as in other less related settings, makes it difficult to explain the relative dearth of the technology's usage in retail settings. There are many different ways in which these technologies can be used to assist customers, employees, and managers at point-of-sale retail locations, may of them direct extrapolations of current uses of the technology in supply chain management that takes place further up the chain. The cost of rolling out retail RFID applications on a wide basis has been prohibitive for much of the past decade, with initial costs of RFID tags running at more than a dollar in their first uses, but as the cost of the technology continues to decline -- tags are currently available for as low as fifteen cents, and this is likely to continue to drop precipitously with new technologies under development -- it is likely that retail applications will become far more pervasive.
This is not to suggest that there are currently no retail applications of the technology in use, limited though they may be. A sushi restaurant in Settle was one of the early adopters of this technology, especially in a direct customer-oriented operations, using RFID tags on their plates to track the food selections and the age of sushi dishes prepared as part of the restaurant's buffet (Totty, 2009). This allowed the restaurant not only greater control over the quality and safety of their products (by controlling the length of time that plates were left out more accurately and consistently), but also enabled the sushi chefs to more instantly and accurately determine what types of dishes were being consumed faster, and thus needed to be replaced more often (Totty, 2009). This is similar to other distribution uses, though on a smaller and more immediate scale.
The same type of application could conceivably be implemented in any retail setting, such as a standard grocery store or supermarket. If all items within the store contained a printed RFID tag, which in the next five to ten years will not at all be an unreasonable proposition given the current state and pace of technology development, shelf-stocking could be accomplished with much greater efficiency and accuracy simply by notifying an overseer every time the number of items of a specific product drops below a threshold level (Garby, 2012; Nusca, 2010; Malone, 2012). This would reduce labor hours, increase sales potential, and could be integrated with ordering processes and other logistcial information that would be passed up the supply chain to achieve greater overall efficiency, as well.
Other retail applications become readily apparent based on even a cursory examination and imagination of potentials. Simply looking at the ways barcodes are used and how these processes could be improved by switching to RFID tags provides some ideas for the retail use of RFID tags that could have immense benefits. The simultaneous (or near-simultaneous) scanning of multiple tags and the ability for scanning to occur without the direct and precise physical association of scanner with reader means the contents of an entire grocery cart full of goods could be scanned and transmitted to a register in a matter of seconds, again reducing employee time as well as employee strain and also enabling customers to be processed faster. This has clear efficiency and even health benefits for the parties involved, and can make current self-checkout machines far more easy to use.
The same basic idea can also help with loss prevention, including issues of shoplifting and other theft. Some retail establishments currently have scanners at their exits meant to respond to the movement of an item through these scanners that has not been paid for -- chances are everyone has been chagrined at least once when an alarm goes off as they exit a store despite the fact that they paid for everything in their possession. The process would not work any differently with RFID tags -- the process of the scanning for stolen items, that is -- but it would work much better in terms of accuracy, consistency, and comprehensiveness. With printable RFID tags, there is no reason that every product other than produce could not have such a tag, all of which would be easily readable by ceiling-embedded receivers at points of egress (Nunca, 2010). Receipts could even be printed with RFID tags and used to match the items associated with those receipts with items exiting concurrently, ensuring the accuracy of the system as a whole and reducing loss through theft.
The use of RFID technology is still very much in its infancy, but appears to be overdue for a growth spurt. It can be expected that over the following years the technology will become ubiquitous in a variety of settings, many of them more familiar to the common consumer than are the current applications of RFID tags. Retail is not the final frontier, either, but household goods that utilize RFID tags to improve ease of use and functionality are also easily imagined. Soon, RFID will be as much a part of our lives as cell phones -- and probably integrated with them, as well.
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Nusca, a. (2010, March 29). Nano RFID tags could replace barcodes; smart groceries, bandages coming. Smart Planet. Retrieved from http://www.smartplanet.com.
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