The use of RFID technology has been steadily increasing for a number of years but is recently picking up momentum. What's changed in terms of the technology itself, and the retail industry as a whole?
Has RFID become a key technology for retail in 2021?
It’s been around for a long time, but Radio Frequency Identification technology (RFID to you and me) is picking up momentum in the retail space. Both Forbes and McKinsey & Company have published recent articles on how the technology is becoming key for retailers, with the latter even describing ‘RFID’s renaissance’ within the industry.
While this does show a shift in the sector, a renaissance implies that the technology is making ‘ a comeback of some kind. This is not quite accurate, as the business case for RFID has been steadily growing in retail over the years, but we are approaching a new stage of its lifecycle in the industry. This is a natural cycle for most new and transformative technologies, but the effect of the pandemic on retail has accelerated this. Not only are many brands on thin ice in the aftermath, but one of the key reasons for implementing RFID, delivering an Omnichannel strategy, has evolved from ‘beneficial’ to almost ‘non-negotiable’ since last year.
Let’s explore where RFID has come and more importantly, how it has become one of the single most important operational technologies to retailers in recent years.
RFID and the Technology Curve
While RFID was invented in the 1940s, it wasn’t until this century it began being used as a business tool. In retail, it has existed for almost 20 years, but its initial cost, technical limitations and fewer established use cases all meant most companies (wisely) didn’t see the value in it initially.
This is common for new technology and over time RFID has matured with more research & development as well as more deployments in live retail environments. This has meant the performance of the technology improved and the return on investment for retailers increased. This is known as a technology S curve (seen below). Over the last ten years, RFID use in retail has experienced this curve with the adoption levels and value for retailers increasing year on year.
Fast-forward to the present day and RFID is at a maturity stage, and we predict that over the next five years will become a ‘base technology’, in apparel and sports retail at the very least. This increase is a result of both the technology maturing over time and the industry evolving as a whole – things like digital disruption, the growth of Omnichannel and the pandemic accelerating certain shifts within the industry have meant the need for RFID has increased greatly.
How has RFID evolved?
For a technology to take off in business (i.e., for it to have a business case) several factors need to be met. The technology needs to be cost-effective, reliable/easy enough to implement and use and most importantly it needs to have enough valuable applications to make it worth doing in the first place.
Early-stage technologies may have one or two of these down, but to really take off and become saturated within an industry it needs to be in this sweet spot of covering all three. So, how do these requirements stack up for RFID?
Like any technology, Radio Frequency Identification was expensive when it first came out. Over time as more R&D was done and more providers entered the space, the price has steadily gone down.
The biggest factor in this was the drop in the cost of RFID tags themselves. At the start of the century, a single RFID tag could cost as much as $0.75/£0.50 but in the current market, they can be sourced for as low as $0.04/£0.06. This not only makes for much better margins for any retailer looking at the technology, but it opened up whole new industries or sectors whose lower product prices points originally made RFID unfeasible.
The technology behind RFID has also developed beyond just price point. RFID hardware has improved in terms of reliability and read distance. Tags on the other hand have become smaller and more advanced so that metal and liquid products no longer interfere with the signal – both of these improvements means a far broader range of merchandise can be tagged. This is particularly relevant for categories like food or cosmetics. Finally, the software has also evolved, with more advanced functionalities like tag localisation, Smart Shielding, and global track-and-trace.
One of the greatest strengths of RFID has always been its wide range of uses and applications. This can at times be a double-edged sword, as companies may not know where to start, may deploy use cases in a sub-optimal order or may chase all use cases at once.
Thankfully, most RFID providers and experts know that a phased approach prioritising KPIs like stock accuracy is vital to both achieving ROI and laying the foundation for more advanced use cases like enabling omnichannel. Provided the project is scaled in the right way, the uses of the technology are broad and include supply chain visibility and traceability, real-time data applications like automated planograms as well as consumer-facing use cases like smart-fitting rooms.
How Retail is Evolving: Why is RFID Becoming Key?
Most of these major changes in RFID retail technology itself occurred several years – the business case has been solid for the last five years at least. This is why many major retailers like adidas, Levi’s, Nike and Target to name a few already have high levels of RFID integration. But in the industry as a whole this is ramping up but why?
Naturally change often happens on a curve, with more cautious brands hesitant to change until they see positive results from other companies who take the ‘risk’. On top of this, however, the market and consumer is changing fast and the digitised accuracy and visibility that RFID provides are becoming non-negotiables for most retailers.
The need to optimise profits/costs
Any business wants to optimise their costs and maximise their profits – it’s not rocket science. But the best ways to do that can often be unclear, and sometimes if it requires some upfront investment or new technology brands may decide that now is not the time. For retailers, the store model and brick-and-mortar economics have been gradually changing over time. As the balance between online and offline channels continues to shift, some stores may become unprofitable if nothing is done.
That is where so many retailers get upfront value from RFID. Implementing the technology in stores increases sales (from reducing out-of-stocks) and reduces running costs (from smaller inventories & increased operational efficiency). Lean stores optimised to such levels may be a necessity in the future with stores playing a less crucial role than five years ago.
Increasing Omnichannel and digital integration
Omnichannel has been a growing force in retail for the last five years. Many retailers bet on omnichannel early, investing in the technology to digitally integrate their stores and supply chains with their online channels, and have profited as a result.
To succeed in omnichannel investment is required, as services like click-and-collect or store-fulfilment need a real-time digital view of store stock if they are going to work effectively. RFID is the perfect solution to these omnichannel challenges, and it’s no coincidence that as Omnichannel has become more common amongst retailers, RFID has as well.
This will be the single biggest factor for RFIDs growth in the next few years. While Omnichannel was once more of an optional strategy since the pandemic and ever-increasing digital shopping channels – it is becoming non-negotiable. This isn’t just us saying so, retailers themselves have recognised this, in a recent survey from the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) the number one imperative for the industry was to ‘become omnipotent on omnichannel.’
Pandemic accelerating the need for digital transformation
While the need for digital transformation to optimise costs, integrate channels and improve operational visibility has been increasing in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this. We’ve covered the effects of the Pandemic in detail over the last year, and many of the mid to long-term effects will push more retailers to RFID adoption.
The changes we have just covered, optimising profits and offering an omnichannel experience, were (or should have been) priorities before, but in the aftermath of the pandemic, they will be the difference makers.
Stores, on the whole, are not going anywhere but they will have to adapt to post-pandemic retail – meaning potentially lower in-store sales and a higher proportion of digital and omnichannel activities. The challenge for retailers is trying to adapt to a changing environment while also financially recovering from the peak of pandemic and lockdowns.
For brands that haven’t started their RFID journey the timing is awkward and yet they may not be able to afford to wait too much longer. While Omnichannel services will be the long-term play, smart retailers will look to use RFID to optimise their profits as soon as possible, securing a return of investment and setting themselves up to profit long-term.
Cloud-hosted RFID software
Stock accuracy, on-floor availability, and omnichannel applications in stores.
Detego Store is a cloud-hosted RFID solution which digitises stock management processes, making them more efficient and more accurate. Implemented within hours, our multi-user app can provide intelligent stock takes and a smart in-store replenishment process. Later, you can scale the solution to offer omnichannel services and effectively manage your entire store operations with real-time, item-level inventory visibility and analytics.