The choice between barcode scanning and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology is often presented as an either/or choice for retailers, but this blinkered approach can see companies miss out on specific benefits.
Both technologies are familiar and widely used in retail. There are good reasons why that should remain the case, not least because each offers distinct abilities and works well with the other. The concept of RFID vs barcodes can therefore be a distraction, while RFID with barcodes can be a far more realistic option.
RFID in retail – a proven technology that still has a future
RFID was cutting-edge technology three decades ago, but it remains a pragmatic choice for some tasks.
Tags fixed to individual products transmit encoded information read by dedicated reader hardware. These reader units can be fixed or mobile, though they are too large to be integrated inside the latest mobile devices such as smartphones.
If reader units are fixed at the goods entrance to individual stores and between the stockroom and the shopfloor then the location of products can be automatically recorded and updated as they move. By quickly receiving goods or stock counting, retailers get real-time oversight on precisely what they have in store.
RFID advantages and disadvantages
RFID technology works well when an aggregated view of inventory is required. It can be used as a method for quick cycle counting and for inventory counting as it arrives at, or leaves a location – especially in busy departments when lots of deliveries arrive at the same time.
Crucially, it copes well with scale. With fixed and mobile readers, counting more items doesn’t require any more effort than counting just a few.
Tracking and traceability are key benefits of this approach. But the benefits don’t end when products arrive at a store. Within large stores, the tags can help narrow down where items are located if they need to be picked for online orders, and RFID signals are a popular choice for anti-theft alarms in fashion retail. Point-of-sale readers can record when tagged items leave stores legitimately, too.
Because RFID technology – unlike barcode scanning – does not require a line of sight to register a product, it can be useful for folded items such as clothing, where barcodes may not be easily visible without searching. This is one of the reasons that RFID has been so popular in the fashion sector.
But no solution is perfect. RFID tracking requires tags to be attached to products at the source. For retailers who control their supply chain and can influence the manufacturing process, adding RFID tags is a possibility. For retailers that stock a wide array of brands, it becomes a big ask to include RFID tags across the supply chain if not done already.
Also, the installation of RFID systems can be costly and complex, and they need to be updated regularly. Radio signal interference can be an issue too, with the presence of water or a lot of metallic objects nearby interrupting signals, for example, and this can cause a fall in accuracy.
Barcode scanning in retail: near-universal compatibility
Barcodes are a well-established technology too. They have been used in retail for more than half a century and have been universally adopted. All retailers have the technology to read and understand them, and all manufacturers are used to putting them on products. It is difficult to find a product that does not have a barcode.
Pretty much every stage of a product’s journey will see it passing devices that are able to scan a barcode. It is accurate, simple and does not require dedicated devices. This improves accessibility for individual workers and decreases the cost to retailers.
Modern smart data capture technology means that barcodes can be used to provide many layers of product information, even allowing consumers to scan codes and discover product attributes via augmented reality with a smartphone. The growing popularity of self-scanning in supermarkets highlights how familiar consumers are with the humble barcode.
However, line of sight is required to read barcodes, and this can be time-consuming at scale. Even with boxed goods, simply ensuring they are all facing in the same direction can require time and effort. With folded or irregularly-shaped products, this can become a headache.
Combining RFID and barcode scanning
All of these factors mean that RFID and barcode scanning are ideal complementary technologies. Working together they can yield greater accuracy, speed and utility, each providing checks and balances to the other.
With omnichannel retail the new norm, delivering a consistent and elevated customer experience relies in part on accurate and timely data. Using RFID to batch read inventory can ensure the required speed and provide an up-to-date single source of the truth. That data can then be accessed by workers and customers in store by scanning barcodes. Facilitating services like Buy Online Pickup In Store (BOPIS) or Ship from Store when an item isn’t immediately available.
It’s crucial for order fulfillment too, ensuring items purchased online are actually available.
Not only is the core tech complimentary but the physical devices used can give workers everything they need to provide great customer service that ties into a retailer’s brand image.
Bulky and expensive RFID readers aren’t designed to be carried around all day. So sharing them between workers for infrequent receiving and stock checks makes sense. For other tasks, having a smaller and more flexible smartphone in their pocket allows workers to seamlessly switch between the back and front of the store and assist customers without having to leave their side. Smartphones are also sleek and can be tailored to the brand image the retailer wants to convey.
While each offers useful, accessible features that can combine to allow more accurate, efficient running of stores – it is also relevant that both technologies already exist, and neither is going away.
Virtually every product features a barcode; the vast majority of logistics networks use RFID.
For retailers where RFID is within their control, potentially investing in it requires serious thought, especially when the two technologies can be integrated so successfully.
Retail contains a wide variety of store formats, locations, product sectors and styles. It demands a wide range of technologies to meet modern consumer expectations.
Like a traditional toolkit, a retailer’s technology stack needs the right tools for every occasion and some – like a hammer and a chisel – are far more helpful when used together. That is certainly the case for the RFID vs barcode scanning debate as the technologies can work together to give retailers far better visibility of their operations.
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