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Updated Apr 10, 2024

RFID for Retail: Know the Pros and Cons

Radio frequency identification is more affordable and useful than ever.

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Joanna Furlong, Contributing Writer
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RFID (radio frequency identification) has come a long way since the early 2000s. At that time, Walmart was the first big retailer to experiment with the new tracking technology, which cost an astounding $1.50 per tag. RFID was a sparkling new concept used primarily for inventory accuracy.

Fast forward to today. RFID has fallen dramatically in price, especially when purchased en masse. The technology is nearly ubiquitous and provides numerous benefits for retailers. We’ll examine the pros and cons of using RFID to help retailers determine if it’s the right tech solution for them. 

What is RFID for retail?

RFID technology can identify and track inventory items. Instead of a printed barcode, RFID uses a tiny computer chip called a tag that stores vast amounts of information, including item number, inventory entry date, size, location, color, type, origin and price. 

When items with an RFID tag pass through an RFID reader, the reader records and stores this information. While barcodes must be scanned one by one, an RFID reader can scan hundreds or thousands of tags on a pallet in seconds.

How do retailers use RFID?

RFID use is nearly ubiquitous among retailers. According to Accenture, 93 percent of North American retailers use RFID in some capacity, and 47 percent have fully adopted the technology. Here are the top retail use cases for RFID technology:

  • RFID in inventory. Inventory tracking is RFID’s primary retail purpose. The technology pinpoints an item’s location and specific attributes every time it passes through an RFID reader, reducing time spent searching for inventory and giving retailers a highly accurate inventory list in real time.
  • RFID for fulfillment. Retailers use RFID readers in delivery trucks and distribution centers to track RFID-tagged items’ movements. This accountability helps reduce lost and stolen items.
  • RFID for omnichannel selling. Accurate inventory and tracking lets companies sell through multiple channels and helps retailers transfer inventory from store to store. The technology allows customers to reserve in-store, buy merchandise via mobile apps, have merchandise shipped from a store, and buy items online and pick them up in the store (also known as BOPIS).
  • RFID and self-checkout. Retailers like Amazon are experimenting with RFID for completely self-service stores. When a customer with a valid account and payment method leaves the store with an item, the tag is read and the customer is charged accordingly.
  • RFID and product recalls. RFID can track when and where products originate at a granular level. Retailers can use this information to identify products subject to a recall.
  • RFID and spoilage. Retailers can tag perishable products with temperature-sensitive RFID tags to reduce spoilage and food-borne illnesses.
Did You Know?Did you know
Beyond retail, RFID powers employee monitoring tools and time clock technology like key cards. This technology can also be a part of document digitizing systems.

The pros and cons of RFID for retail

As with any new technology, you need to know how you’ll use it before you adopt it. “RFID is meaningless if it’s not used as an enabler,” explained Holden Bale, lead retail strategist for ThoughtWorks, a global consultancy focused on using technology to drive business innovation in retail. “If a company buys it without use cases for it, then there’s no ROI.” 

To ensure an optimal ROI, consider the following pros and cons before you invest in RFID for your retail business.

Pros

Inventory control

Better inventory control enhances the customer experience. It’s particularly critical in retail chain stores with multiple locations that provide omnichannel fulfillment. When customers buy something online for in-store pickup, they want to know what’s in stock and where they can get it. RFID improves inventory accuracy and enables omnichannel fulfillment.

“RFID can be most beneficial when it comes to enhanced inventory control and loss prevention, where RFID can help give you much greater visibility into and more granular control over your inventory,” noted cybersecurity consultant Emily Mitchell. “Traditional barcodes can only identify products on a basic level, and all products of the same type have identical barcodes.”

Enhanced data and inventory detail

Straightforward inventory control is valuable. However, RFID improves inventory control with information far beyond generic descriptions. 

“RFID tags carry unique identification numbers and can store a moderate amount of data, which can be used to identify and track items on an individual level anywhere in the store,” Mitchell explained. “This is especially helpful for apparel, where a barcode might say, ‘This is a $300 sundress,’ and an RF security tag might say, ‘Someone just walked off with something.’ An RFID tag can tell you, ‘This is a $300 sundress in a size 0; it’s coral pink. This is the one with a small snag by the hem, but it’s still super cute; it arrived in the store three weeks ago, you just put it on the rack last week, and now it’s walking out the front door.'”

Did You Know?Did you know
RFID gives retailers a new way to track industry trends, gather data, and understand what's in stock and what's walking out the door.

Smart shelving

RFID can help retailers know where a product is located in a store at all times. When product locations can be pinpointed, businesses can easily direct customers to the items they need. 

Consider a massive retailer like Lowe’s Home Improvement, where customers may struggle to find a specific item like a wrench or faucet. RFID technology can guide customers to exactly the items they need. “Lowe’s has an app that can route you through the store and guide you to that specific item because you know where the inventory is in real-time,” Bale explained.

Shorter checkout wait times

RFID technology can scan areas in seconds and save retail customers time. This means it can speed up checkout lines and help create a zero-friction approach at the point of sale.

“While traditional barcodes require line of sight for scanning, and each item has to be scanned individually, an entire shopping cart can be scanned all at once, instantly, with no items being removed from the basket,” Mitchell said.

TipBottom line
Long waits frustrate customers. If in-person waiting is inevitable, improve your customers' waiting experience by providing a pleasant atmosphere and entertainment options, and communicate frequently about their place in line.

Improved customer experience

By reducing stockouts and overstocks and enabling omnichannel selling, RFID improves the customer experience. A better customer experience means more customer loyalty and lower customer acquisition costs. 

Smart fitting rooms are another way RFID technology can improve the customer experience. If you place an RFID reader and smart mirrors in a fitting room, you can create a personal-shopper experience that recommends additional clothing and accessories and provides customers with information on size availability and color options. Then you can use the data from smart fitting rooms to know which items are being tried on and how often those items are purchased. This data improves the buying process, putting more desirable items and sizes in stores and reducing outdated stock.

Did You Know?Did you know
Even if you reduce overstocks with technology like RFID, excess inventory is sometimes unavoidable. You can cash in on excess inventory by selling bulk items to other businesses or inventory liquidators.

Cons

Security

For all the magic and customer-enhancing experiences RFID promises to deliver, be aware that the technology can create a weak link in your business’s cybersecurity plan. As Mitchell explained, hacking RFID technology doesn’t take more than a smartphone.

“RFID tags can be very easy to clone, especially if the chip has no authentication mechanism,” Mitchell shared. “Using practically any smartphone, one can walk over to a lower-priced item and read the tag, then walk over to a higher-priced item and write the information from the lower-priced item to its tag. That $300 coral pink size 0 sundress can easily become a $5 tank top with two quick and inconspicuous gestures on a smartphone.”

Privacy and transparency

RFID tracking doesn’t stop when a customer leaves the store — unless the tags are removed. While RFID is a game-changer in inventory control and understanding, customers may not want you to continue tracking them after the sale. 

“If consumers pay for products with a credit or debit card, or scan a loyalty discount card at checkout, retailers can then link the purchases to the recorded RFID data and use the information to map out individual customers’ movements throughout the store, or even an entire shopping complex,” Mitchell said.

FYIDid you know
While the European Union's GDPR privacy law does not specify that RFID data is personal data, it does include guidelines regarding the use and privacy of RFID data.

Cost and integration

RFID is a catalyst for new customer experiences, enhanced data and streamlined operations. But these changes don’t happen overnight — they require extensive investments of time and money. 

RFID tags are just one cost of the integration matrix. Others include the following:

  • Stores will require business Wi-Fi for a seamless experience.
  • Scanners can range from $3,000 to more than $20,000.
  • You may need multiple scanners, depending on the size of the store and how many locations you have. 
  • This technology may increase your staff requirements. 
  • You’ll need to pay software integration and employee training costs. 

The time to explore RFID is now

If your store hasn’t yet explored RFID’s benefits, the time to do so is now. Your competitors are likely already putting this technology to work. Additionally, RFID technology can enable other current and future technologies, including blockchain. In fact, according to the Accenture report, 82 percent of retailers agree that RFID is essential for implementing emerging technologies. You don’t want to be left behind.

Jennifer Dublino contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.

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Joanna Furlong, Contributing Writer
Joanna Furlong is a freelance writer and content strategist based in Southern California. Her background is in digital marketing, but she’s been writing professionally for more than 10 years. She partners with startups, technology companies and small businesses across the U.S. to tell their brand stories through compelling content. And, she loves to report on the intersection where business, management and technology collide.
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