Radio frequency identification (RFID) has become established as a dominant force in the apparel industry, with the technology finally approaching mass adaption after years of threatening to.
The technology involves tags or “labels” that emit a small radio frequency, allowing radio stock counts that are both highly accurate and incredibly fast compared to traditional methods. The result of this is a very up to date, or even real-time, view of stock. The main use cases responsible for the technology’s success include the increased process efficiency, superior inventory management and the enablement of seamless omnichannel services.
That’s the story of RFID in apparel, but what about other retail industries? After years of technical roadblocks that have kept the technology out of other markets, the technology has matured to a point where new industries are RFID-viable for the first time ever. The beauty and cosmetics industry is beginning to take notice of RFID, and perhaps now food retailers should do the same.
Why? Because modern RFID is so well positioned to tackle the food industry’s unique challenges, like optimising inventory, minimising food waste and increasing the traceability of the supply chain.
Whilst this sounds great, the limitations of the technology that we mentioned earlier have historically meant RFID just wasn’t viable for the food market. As well as liquid and metallic products traditionally interfering with the RFID signals, the food industry’s drastically lower average article price compared to the apparel industry were significant roadblocks. But this changing…
Mature RFID technology is ready to take on the food industry
RFID is reaching a level of maturity that means the previous barriers to entry for the food industry are starting to disappear:
- The price of individual RFID tags has fallen significantly, making it viable for more and more food products.
- RFID tags have become smaller – so it’s now possible to label even the smallest items.
- More advanced tags now exist that work on metal and liquid products
- Durable tags that survive high and low temperatures and even microwaves are now available, meaning all kinds of food packaging can be tagged with RFID.
Because of these changes we are already seeing the first steps of RFID breaking into the food industry, with RFID-giant Avery Dennison beginning to operate in the market and last year the first-ever blockchain beef shipment taking place using RFID tagging, providing a potentially industry-changing level of traceability and assurance only possible through RFID.
Superior inventory management for efficient operations.
The first major use case for RFID in the food industry is one already tried and tested in apparel – superior inventory management. Replacing manual stock-keeping methods with fast and highly accurate RFID processes gives retailers a reliable and up-to-date view of their entire stock. Whilst having a clear view of store inventory is highly beneficial for any retail business but for the food industry, where items have to be managed and monitored much more intensely, an RFID system could cut shelf life labour costs by up to 50%. Another major impact of the 99% stock accuracy RFID provides is the reduction in inventory sizes due to not needing extra ‘safety stock’, this could have a major economic effect for food retailers and would also stop inventory shrinkage from expiry dates. Leading us to our next major use for RFID in food retail:
Reducing Food Waste
Food waste is a massive problem. Every year in the UK alone 18 million tonnes of food end up in landfill, Around 1/3 from producers/ supply chain, 1/3 from retail and 1/3 from households. Not only is this an environmental and ethical issue, but for the food industry itself, this sees huge amounts of capital literally wasting away.
When it comes to retail, fresh produce and waste due to shelf-life is a unique issue to the food industry, but one RFID (and an effective RFID platform) is well suited to manage. Expiry dates result in a huge amount of food waste in the commercial sector and are also very labour intensive to manage on the shop floor.
So how might RFID solve this problem? The benefits that the accurate and item-level view of stock RFID provides has been well documented in the apparel sector, but with the food industry, this real-time view of stock will be even more valuable. An Internet of Things platform (giving individual physical objects a unique digital identity) designed specifically for use with food products would not only be able to monitor and maintain stock levels on shelves but could monitor the expiry date of individual products, alerting staff when items are nearing expiry or need to be marked down.
A fully Visible and Transparent Supply Chain – for consumer satisfaction and better handling of product recalls.
The final major use case of RFID for the food industry is the traceability of products through the supply chain. Whilst other retail industries get value out of this in terms of warehouse efficiency and smooth operations between distribution centres and stores, the food industry is an industry where traceability of products is a major concern, for consumers just as much as retailers. People are increasingly concerned with where their food comes from, and suppliers and retailers could look to take advantage of RFID traceability and even utilise new blockchain methods alongside this to offer their customers assurances and gain the trust of consumers. We are already in the very early stages of this having already seen the first blockchain beef shipment take place, giving consumers 100% traceability and visibility of where their produce comes from.
On the other end of the food traceability issue is food recalls. Product recalls are an unfortunately common problem in the food industry, costing the industry an estimated $55.5 billion a year. A recent example of this being the major recall of humous products across the UK due to salmonella. These have a huge impact on the industry, not only economically but also on brand reputation. RFID’s ability to accurately trace individual items across an entire supply chain could prove invaluable in such an event. Having complete accuracy would allow food suppliers to pinpoint exactly where the issue occurred and easily track where all other products from the compromised location were sent, allowing for fast and efficient recalls. This would also potentially reduce food wastage due to over-recall and increase consumer trust in the retailer.
So, the food industry has several challenges that RFID has been proven to solve and the technology has gotten to a point where it is viable among the much more diverse and complicated range of products. The only thing that may hold it back is the cost. Whilst the price of tags has dropped significantly, the price point for food products is far lower than in apparel. This may prove a barrier for tagging some food items, at least initially. Fresh products like meat and fish (and potentially some fruit and veg) however have both a high enough price point and a limited shelf life meaning managing them with RFID could prove hugely beneficial. The food industry is a new frontier for RFID, and time will tell just how well it does in the market. But make no mistake, in the coming years we will see it attempted, and the success of the technology in the industry will be decided, one way or another.
The retail industry has been subject to enormous change in recent years, a trend that looks likely to continue even now retail has found its feet in the digital age. This significant shift in the landscape coupled with the collapse of numerous household brands naturally created something of a panic in the industry and a fear an impending ‘retail apocalypse’. So, has this taken place and are brick and mortar stores heading toward extinction in the age of online shopping? The short answer: no. Retail sales, in general, are increasing, and whilst online sales are certainly growing at a faster rate than in stores, in the UK market Brick and Mortar stores make up roughly 84% of all sales, a trend that applies globally.
In fact, with the help of new technology, in particular, AI brick and mortar stores can take lessons from e-commerce and bring new innovations into the physical store. A study by Capgemini found that around 68% of pure-play online retailers have implemented artificial intelligence in some fashion, compared to only 10% of brick and mortar stores. Utilising new technology can often be the key to growth, so perhaps it’s no surprise that online retailing is growing at such a faster rate. This is beginning to change however, as physical stores are learning to adapt.
AI-assisted cross-selling in the store
The ability to cross-sell using AI is a huge strength of online retail. Online stores use machine learning to make intelligent and tailored product recommendations to customers while they are shopping This naturally increases sales, but does so relative to the quality of the product recommendations, hence the use of AI to perfect the process and make more successful recommendations. Brick and mortar stores have traditionally never been able to make use of cross-selling like this, having to rely on in-person customer service to drive sales. But as technology has improved, they can now make use of both.
The main reason for this is the emergence of chatbots as a mobile platform for in-store product recommendations. Whilst chatbots themselves originate from online, certain retailers now implement them in their stores to assist customers. Their primary function is often to assist customers if store associates are all occupied. Chatbots can help customers locate items, find more information on products and check stock availability, all through their smartphones. Intelligent AI-powered chatbots will then be able to recommend products similar to the item’s customers were searching for, not only increasing sales but improving the customer experience.
The fashion industry has taken this concept even further with the use of smart mirrors. Smart mirrors use advanced tagging technology (RFID) to sense the items that a customer brings into a fitting room. It will then display the products on the mirror and, like a chatbot, assist customers by providing information on other available sizes and colours and recommending products that are often bought with the ones being tried on. Most smart mirrors also have a feature that calls store staff to assist the customer, either providing face-to-face support or bringing the recommended items the customer has chosen to the fitting room. Smart fitting rooms are the epitome of the merger of the digital and physical in brick and mortar stores.
AI-powered in-store business intelligence
Artificial intelligence can also go a long way to revolutionising traditional brick and mortar store processes. One of the best examples of this is the use of AI assisted planograms. A planogram is essentially a plan of where items should be displayed on a shop floor to maximise customer purchases. In certain sectors such as fashion, planograms must be even more detailed and include the optimum display quantities of each different size and colour.
Artificial intelligence can revolutionise the planogram, using machine learning to constantly optimise not only the positioning of merchandise but the most efficient quantities of different articles to display on the shop floor. The advantages of this process being performed through AI are huge. Not only does it largely automate the process, saving time for staff, but it will constantly adapt and improve and can personalise and optimise the planogram on an individual store level.
The future of retail, online and in-store
To conclude, the impact of digital technology on the retail industry, in particular brick and mortar stores, has been significant but not actively catastrophic as many feared it would be. The emergence of ecommerce has gone from a threat to a strength for some physical stores. Not only has omnichannel retailing (something we did not have time to explore, but we go into detail on here) allied the different methods of shopping, but brick and mortar stores have now begun to incorporate certain technologies from online.
AI technology, originally something only online retailers could really utilise, is now finding its way into brick and mortar stores and improving both store processes and customer experience. We are also just scratching the surface of AI’s uses in retail and as more retailers choose to adopt the technology more benefits will be discovered. So, in reality brick and mortar stores are far from going extinct; they are in fact evolving and will continue to do so.
Inventory management is a problem as old as retail itself, so when brick and mortar stores look to digitise and modernise themselves for the modern age, shouldn’t their inventory systems do the same? Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) has gradually become embedded in the fashion retail industry due to this need to innovate stock management. What makes the technology unique is that every single RFID tag emits a small radio frequency. An RFID reader picks up hundreds of these signals in a matter of seconds, from several feet away, without requiring a direct line of site. The tag then shares whatever data it is encoded with, typically item info, dates, times and shipping information but theoretically, the only limit to what can be stored and utilised is the imaginations of the designers and engineers.
At its most basic level, RFID allows for incredibly fast and efficient stock management with little room for human error, meaning stock accuracy soars (reaching levels of 99% with RFID) and labour time falls dramatically. The technology also allows for more advanced usage such as faster Point of Sale or the enablement of omnichannel services – something the fashion industry has made good use of in recent years.
So, if the technology is so advantageous, why is it not dominating all retail markets? Initially, RFID labels were not only fairly expensive (averaging out at just under £1 per label) but they were also often too large to tag smaller products. This meant RFID did not make financial or logistical sense for many retailers, particularly in markets with a low individual item value. Another big issue was the interference that metal and liquid products have on RFID signals, meaning certain products could not be tagged with any real confidence.
These roadblocks proved fatal for RFID’s success in many industries, including beauty and cosmetics. But in the Fashion sector, with a high individual article price and the need for high stock accuracy and article availability, it was a huge success. However, these barriers to success in other markets are beginning to disappear, and the business potential of RFID is continuing to grow. The Beauty industry could now look to utilise the tags, achieving similar or perhaps even greater results as those seen in the apparel sector.
The beauty industry has been keen to implement RFID for some time. Previous efforts to combat its limitations include the use of ‘smart packaging’ that took steps to make tagging cosmetic products possible through packages that are not only big enough to hold the tags in the first place but can also combat the interference caused by metallic or liquid products. This made RFID a possibility in the beauty industry if beauty suppliers were prepared to take the extra steps to make it so. But due to the solution being built into a product’s packaging, it meant it was not appropriate for every product and it was ultimately out of the hands of the retailers themselves, making full shop floor visibility a rarity.
If we were waiting for something of a ‘eureka moment’ for RFID, then the wait may well be over. Just this month, tag producer and RFID-heavyweight Avery Dennison announced the launch of their first on-metal tags. This is a huge breakthrough for the beauty industry and could be the silver bullet for the biggest barrier to entry for RFID. As the solution is very recent, we haven’t seen it applied on a large scale yet. But because the new tags work with liquid products as well as metal ones, beauty products are suddenly RFID-viable.
But this breakthrough is meaningless if labels are still too big to attach to products, or if they are too expensive to really warrant doing so. Thankfully, it’s good news on both fronts. As with any new technology, the price of RFID tags has been gradually dropping since their invention. Whilst previously an individual tag could be priced around £1, these days they are closer to 5p. The size of labels has similarly shrunk, meaning tags can be physically applied to feasibly any product or its outer packaging. This is great news for the beauty industry, as many cosmetic products are smaller and external pull-off labels, like those used in apparel, are not viable. This means the scope retailers have for tagging individual products is far more generous than it was in the past.
Fresh opportunities for beauty retailers
So, we’ve seen evidence that the technology has finally reached a point where it can be used in the beauty industry, but why should we care? What do cosmetic retailers stand to gain from the technology? And, perhaps more importantly, what difference does it make to the customer?
Efficient & accurate stock counts
We’ll start with the most basic principle: RFID revolutionises stock counts. Whilst this may seem like a lesser detail, the accuracy and speed with which inventories are collected does form the backbone of the business case for RFID. With products arriving at stores and distribution centres already tagged, inventory management becomes effortless. Stock counts become a matter of seconds as opposed to minutes (using barcodes) or even hours (using pencil & clipboard). This increased efficiency will have two big impacts on beauty retailers. The first is the reduction in labour intensity of managing stock. Not only do RFID stock counts not eat up the time of the retail staff but having a complete and transparent view of stock also makes item replenishment from the backroom to the sales floor much simpler to manage. Intelligent inventory systems can display alerts when items need replenishment, so staff can spend less time monitoring shop floor levels themselves.
The other main impact of RFID stock counts is the increase in stock accuracy for retailers. The industry standard stock accuracy without RFID is somewhere around 70% (although retailers often do not realise it is as low as this) compared to 99% with RFID. This stock accuracy coupled with the ease of shop floor replenishment increases article availability and therefore sales by avoiding out of stock situations. Whereas traditionally beauty retailers were often stuck with the choice between neglecting inventory accuracy or losing out on money from higher labour costs or loss of sales, with RFID retailers can have the best of both worlds. This accuracy and efficiency stretch across the entire supply chain, increasing shipping accuracy and aiding logistics at warehouses and distribution centres and, crucially, providing a complete view of stock. Increased process efficiency is perhaps the biggest way RFID adds value to retail. The knock-on effect of this is retail staff having more time to spend on customer service, which improves the shopping experience and increases sales. Beauty retailers could push these results even further by implementing faster point of sale solutions using RFID.
So with accurate stock counts taking place effortlessly both in the store and in distribution centres, and with tags being as cheap as they are, beauty retailers can realistically look at achieving full inventory visibility across the entire supply chain. But what does this achieve? Item level transparency unlocks the real potential of RFID, as it allows innovative solutions and use cases to be deployed which can drastically reduce the time it takes to see a return on investment.
Reduction in shrinkage
For example, one of the biggest challenges for many beauty retailers is item shrinkage. The average shrink percentage in the retail industry is generally about 2% of sales, amounting to $49 billion in losses globally. Having total item visibility would give beauty retailers the tools to combat this critical issue. The complete transparency of supply chains makes individual items entirely traceable, so retailers could pinpoint exactly where shrinkage is taking place and combat it accordingly.
Limited shelf-life is another cause of shrinkage in the industry; one that RFID is well suited to manage as an items sell-by date can be stored on the tag itself. Once scanned, this information then becomes an extension of the 100% article visibility that retailers have access to. This complete view of stock would not only tell staff when items need replenishing from the back room, but it would also tell them which items are passed or approaching their expiry date. Automating the monitoring of this process alongside replenishment would further aid efficiency and assure retailers that products are being marked down and therefore sold instead of expiring, combatting shrinkage and actively increasing sales.
Unlocking effective omnichannel retailing
Having complete item visibility would also mean beauty retailers could finally capitalise on the emergence of omnichannel. The strategy is becoming such a dominant force across retail that it is becoming less and less of a choice to implement and more of a necessity. The beauty industry has yet to make the most of omnichannel as, whilst many retailers operate across multiple channels, they are not fully integrated or connected as well as they could be. A report by Newstore suggests that whilst 80% of shoppers research online before even stepping into a store, only 36% of brands have enabled in-store inventory visibility for customers either online or a mobile app. This experience of seamless integration of shopping experience across all channels is something consumers are beginning to expect, as neighbour industries like fashion already offer such an experience. Perhaps the main reason for beauty being slower to adopt effective omnichannel is the need for total item visibility to really do so. Weaving multiple channels of shopping together requires a total view of stock, which then transforms brick and mortar stores into digital hubs. Now that the beauty industry can finally set its sights on full RFID implementation, it can look forward to benefiting from the omnichannel capabilities that come with it.
The omnichannel experience is a good example of how the beauty industry can use RFID to actively increase consumer engagement, but it is certainly not the only one. Existing technology that is used in other markets like chatbots could easily make an impact in beauty stores, recommending products for customers and informing them on stock. Once RFID begins to become established, we will also no doubt see the emergence of customer engagement solutions specific to the industry and its demands. The technology and its uses are ultimately very flexible so can be manipulated to provide market-specific solutions. But to reach this point the beauty industry will first need to embrace the technology. Then we can really see its full potential unlocked.
RFID ready to digitise the cosmetics industry
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) has already proven itself in fashion retail, with many retailers taking advantage of the increased product availability (>98%), inventory accuracy (>99%) and omnichannel capabilities that the technology provides.
The cosmetics industry would stand to profit just as much from this level of insight and visibility into their inventory levels, however utilising the technology has traditionally been far more difficult than in the apparel market. This is because cosmetic products are generally too small to be tagged accordingly and they frequently contain liquids or metal materials in their packaging that negatively affect RFID technology.
However, with recent advancements in the technology, this is beginning to change. RFID tags becoming smaller now makes labelling practically any product possible and, with the price of labels continuing to drop, financially viable. Perhaps most important though is the invention of new ‘on-metal’ RFID labels that can be used to tag both metallic and liquid products without issue, hence removing the biggest barrier to RFID in the cosmetics industry.
New developments can benefit cosmetic brands and optimise customer experience
New packaging materials and smaller, more sensitive RFID tags finally help cosmetic brands to provide ever-greater inventory accuracy both in the store and in the webshop, to fulfil the increasing need for fast global shipping and replenishment.
The particular issue of shelf-life is a challenge of the cosmetics industry that is not shared by the apparel market. RFID, however, seems ideally suited to the task of managing expiry dates, as the tags can hold the information on an item-level, meaning the store staff receives real-time visibility on the shelf-life of every item in the store and would receive alerts warning them when items are close to or past their expiry date. This also enables products to be marked-down to ensure they are sold before expiration.
Benefits for retailers:
- Inventory visibility along the entire supply chain
- No out-of-stock situations due to increased product availability
- Superior quality of customer service
- Reduced inventory shrinkage in stores
- Operational efficiencies for in-store processes
- Increased brand loyalty
- Analytics in real-time and store KPIs
- Easily manage shelf-life of products
Benefits for customers:
- High product availability across all channels
- Unique shopping experience
- Product recommendations with additional information
- Supports in decision-making process
- Click and collect
- Instore ordering
Matching the style
The cosmetics industry is aware that the inclusion of advanced technologies in the corporate and retail environment can enhance their presence in the future. This includes not using just any technology, but one that fits the company philosophy and compliments their appearance and store as well as product design. Technology should guarantee the future of the company, retain employees and fascinate customers. And whilst there are of course a multitude of benefits from RFID already established in the Fashion industry, as more cosmetic companies begin to utilize the technology more use cases specific to the industry will be discovered, and its full potential unlocked.