January 17, 2005

Retail CIOs Demo RFID Prototypes

By Evan Schuman, eWEEK

NEW YORK—Speaking to an overflow crowd at the National Retail Federation's Redefining Retail show Monday, Metro Group CIO Zygmunt Mierdorf beamed in live footage of the company's prototype RFID-enabled stores from Germany, showing interactive changing rooms that make clothing recommendations and have clerks bring additional pieces, a cashier shelf that instantly scans items (so the cashier doesn't have to) and a privacy system that literally leaves the chip in the store.

Mierdorf also demonstrated smart shelves that display the clothing sizes on them so that customers need not rummage through clothing piles.

The customer in the dressing room can interact with a touch screen. If the clothing selected is not the right size "or if the customer accepts a computer-recommended accompanying piece of clothing" an attendant is automatically alerted and brings the items to the customer in the dressing room. This is helpful when customers may not want to go through the bother of getting dressed, go into the sales area to pick up the replacement items, and then return to the dressing area and repeat the dressing process, Mierdorf said.

Mierdorf's presentation was one of three that teased attendees with the prototype potential of RFID, along with a brief update on initial RFID deployment activities from Wal-Mart's CIO, Linda Dillman.

Dillman opened the presentation with references to her company's highly publicized RFID trials, with the extensive attention to Wal-Mart's announced plans to deploy this month. "As my vendors have told me repeatedly, 'January' does not mean 'Jan. 1,'" she said.

Dillman said little new about the rollouts beyond what analysts were briefed on in late December. But she did reveal the small bugs discovered during the trial process, such as discovering that one manufacturer's system kept issuing a sleep command to another vendor's chip.

Wal-Mart will soon have forklift-mounted RFID readers and product visibility within 30 minutes of merchandise movement, Dillman told the crowd. She also said that an immediate advantage of their trial is that when associates try to place manual orders—something Dillman promised would always be permitted—the system can now alert the associate if the product being ordered is already in the backroom. Today, it's just an FYI alert. In 60 days, Dillman said, they are considering making it mandatory, where the system will not permit a manual order if it knows the merchandise is already there.

The Wal-Mart executive also showed video of a handheld device—which she described as more closely resembling a small Geiger counter than a typical PDA—that associates can use to track wayward merchandise on the back of a store shelf. Just like that Geiger counter, the Wal-Mart unit beeps progressively faster as it approaches the hidden product.

As is the rule with live demonstrations, not everything went perfectly. Colin Cobain, the U.K. IT director for Tesco, had created on-stage a live working demo of the company's RFID system. The demonstration was intended to show that the system would detect merchandise changes. On the first try, the system properly flagged a flawed crate with a red light. After it was repaired, though, it was supposed to show a green light. It didn't, leaving some in the audience to comment that it was perhaps a more realistic demo than had been intended.