M&S extends RFID trial

The high-street retailer is set to extend the use of RFID to track its stock after a successful trial

Marks & Spencer (M&S) is set to run more extensive trials of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags following the success of an initial pilot in items of clothing at its High Wycombe store near London.

In a trial partly funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, M&S used RFID tags on a selection of men's suits, shirts and ties at the store between 13 October and 7 November last year.

M&S has declared the trial a success, although it admits that some modifications need to be made to the hardware and software. The company said it will now look at a bigger pilot involving several stores as part of establishing the business case for RFID across its product range.

"In order to establish whether there is a business case for the introduction of RFID in any part of the garment supply chain at item level, a more extensive trial, involving a number of stores, will be required," the company said in a report. "Plans for a business- case trial are still being developed; however, it is likely that this could begin in the spring 2004."

The store used two types of scanner for the trial. A portal was installed at the distribution centre and loading bay of the store to allow rails of hanging garments and packaged clothes to be pushed through and read at speed. A mobile scanner fitted to a shopping trolley was used to scan garment tags on the shopfloor.

M&S said the portal scanner was "less accurate" and "less versatile" than the mobile scanner, which represented better value. But modifications would need to be made, including the 'ruggedising' of the mobile scanner and changing the role of the scanner to a transmitter rather than processor of information to cut down on power consumption and battery size.

Fifty customers browsing the menswear department at the High Wycombe store were interviewed about RFID and the research found no awareness of, or issues around, RFID technology.

In fact, to avoid the privacy concerns that have dogged other RFID projects, M&S used what it called 'intelligent labels' that hold just the number unique to each garment. When scanned against an M&S database, the tag would only give information related to the product's size, style or colour.

In the findings of the trial, M&S said RFID tags can be used to further its goal of 100 percent stock accuracy by ensuring the right goods are delivered to the right store at the right time.

The 'intelligent label' has been developed with Paxar and Dewhirst, and the scanner technology has been developed with Intellident and Samsys Technologies. The microchips were provided by Swiss company EM Microelectronic.