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What are the benefits of RFID in the fashion industry?

Trendy fashions -- with their quick cycles of 'hot' or 'not' -- need auto-ID technology that can keep pace. Here's a look at why RFID fills the bill.

With the numerous benefits of RFID, many people are surprised that it has not displaced barcodes as the predominant auto-ID technology in manufacturing and distribution.

Radio frequency ID (RFID) has some significant benefits that barcodes simply can't match, including the ability to read a label that you can't see, the inherent ability to identify a specific item rather than just the type of item and more.

Barcodes, on the other hand, are cheap. You can print your own barcode labels on almost any printer, they are reliable and they are well-entrenched in the industry. RFID labels, readers and scanners cost more, although costs have dropped significantly as the technology has grown in acceptance and use.

RFID is primarily used for identification on cases and crates, pallets and containers, and in special circumstances where barcode limitations pose a problem. Today, few retail consumer products carry RFID labels -- some early pilot tests stirred resistance from some consumers who felt that the product identification and tracking were intrusive. However, although widespread use of RFID for consumer products has not developed, the significant benefits of RFID are beginning to show in several specific areas, including in fashion.

Trendy fashion products tend to have a relatively short product lifecycle. The latest designs and colors pop up in the marketplace, fly off the store shelves of specialty retailers for a short time and then end up in the discount bins when knock-off competing products flood mass merchandizers. Specialty retailers have to have the hot items in the right sizes and colors, but cannot afford to overstock because unsold merchandise drops in value very quickly when the fad inevitably changes. In other words, inventory control and responsive distribution are critical.

It's not enough to know that there are 15 skirts of a certain type on the store shelf. The merchant and its supplier must know the size, color and other specific characteristics of each skirt, as well as knowing exactly what has been sold and what remains in stock at all times.

To this end, the benefits of RFID are clear in the fashion industry. With an RFID tag identifying each item and immediate reporting of product movement and inventory status, a supplier or distributor can manage near-instantaneous replenishment of the fastest moving items, sizes and colors store by store to ensure that customers aren't disappointed and that sales are not lost to the competitor down the block. If red skirts are selling faster in the downtown store and blue is more popular at the mall store, distribution can deliver the right replacements to each location and even redistribute blue skirts from downtown to the mall and red skirts from the mall to downtown.

Global fashion retailer Zara, for example, is now attaching reusable RFID tags to every item of clothing in its stores to deliver faster response to consumer preferences and to reduce supply chain costs.

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