Marks & Spencer is to extend its ongoing trial of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology for the management of its clothing stock from nine of its stores to 53 in the second quarter of next year.
RFID is a method for storing, receiving and transmitting data using antennas on tags that respond to radio frequency queries. Tags can be read when a remote scanner is passed over them.
"The feedback so far from our staff has been that the RFID tags have improved our stock-taking process. What takes up to eight hours a week to do manually can be done with RFID tags in about an hour," said M&S spokeswoman Olivia Ross.
M&S began to trial RFID on an item level in April 2004. The current trial is only for men's suiting but will include women's undergarments in 2006.
"We are looking to test RFID with size-complex items, and for bras alone, there could be over 40 sizes," Ross said.
M&S is quick to point out that the only purpose in using RFID is for improving its stock-taking process. The RFID tags are not scanned at the checkout, nor is any link made between the garment information held by the tag and the customer's details, such as credit card information, Ross said.
"We don't match personal details to the garment and we will never be doing that," Ross said. "We are open about the trials and the customer feedback we've been getting has been positive. The customers we've polled in the stores using RFID have said they noticed an improvement in stock availability which they like."
In the current trial, the RFID chips are placed inside throwaway paper labels. During the second phase of the garment trial, the chips will be integrated into the paper barcode labels M&S already uses to record the size and cost of the item, and will have the words "Intelligent Label for stock control use" marked on it so shoppers are aware of the RFID chip.
The intelligent labels can be read at speeds 20 times faster than bar code labels, M&S said.
The company also provides leaflets to customers in the stores where the tags are used explaining the new technology as well as what M&S is doing – and will not be doing – with the information it collects, Ross said.
Peter Harrop, chairman of the Cambridge -based RFID specialist IDTechEx, said that companies planning to use RFID must conduct trials that show customers the technology's benefits, such as well-stocked stores, and address potentially sensitive issues from the outset.
Harrop pointed to the decision by clothing retailers Benetton and Prada to drop their RFID trials after receiving negative reaction to tags being put in women's lingerie and women's dresses, respectively.
"I think Prada was quite surprised by the reaction of women shopping in its New York store who didn't like the idea of the store recording dress sizes," Harrop said.
Tesco also found itself dealing with protests after it was revealed that during its pilot with Gillette razor blades, the tags were programmed to send instructions for in-store cameras to take pictures of people with the product at the check-out stand.
"There was some protest, but Tesco completed the trial, which showed that the technology works," Harrop said. "Tesco has decided to proceed with its RFID trials but to focus on ones that don't have to do with catching criminals for the time being."
Harrop believes several of the privacy campaigners' concerns are contrived and, based on information culled from the 1,300 European RFID case studies IDTechEx has in its database, doesn't think privacy issues will derail the technology's use.
"People face more intrusion on their privacy through the use of their mobile phones, which can continuously track their whereabouts, and that hasn't kept people away from that technology," Harrop said. "The main thing that would keep RFID tags from becoming ubiquitous is cost."