JCK Special Report: RFID to the Rescue

The type of technology associated with criminal prevention and the recovery of stolen property often involves things like video surveillance, alarm systems, and GPS tracking. It’s rare that inventory-management technology is credited with helping to recover stolen goods, but Sissy Jones, of Sissy’s Log Cabin, says it did precisely that.

The Pine Bluff, Ark., jeweler says she believes she operates one of the few retail jewelry businesses in the United States to employ radio frequency identification technology, more commonly known as RFID. The store has been using it for about a year.

RFID, which uses the radio frequency portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to identify an object, animal, or person, is increasingly used as an alternative to bar codes. An advantage of RFID is that it does not require direct contact or line-of-sight scanning. At Sissy’s Log Cabin, an employee scans items by passing a “wand” over a tray of jewelry or watches, and all the items on the tray are accounted for.

“RFID tags are wonderful. We take our wand and go over our diamond box, and zoom, it’s scanned,” said Jones, chief executive officer of the business. Jones says it was the speed and ease of use of RFID that allowed her and a sales associate to quickly identify a stolen Rolex watch.

Jones says two persons came into the store near closing time Dec. 10, 2008, headed straight to the Rolex boutique, and eventually stood at opposite ends of the 24-foot counter asking questions and making small talk to Jones and her sales associate while looking at watches. After they left, Jones and the associate discovered that a watch was missing.

“We noticed that there was one empty hole [where a watch should have been] and we got our scanner out and scanned them,” Jones said. “In 10 to 15 minutes we knew which one was missing.”

From there they were able to quickly supply the watch’s serial number to the police and their insurance agent, Jones said. The watch was recovered at a pawnshop in Dallas, through a precious metals report. It was returned to Jones two days after the robbery. Jones said she paid $1,000 to the pawnshop dealer because that’s what he paid the thieves for the watch. The stainless-steel and gold watch was valued at more than $7,000.

Craig Carnevale, owner, Jewelry Computer Systems, which sells software products to jewelers, says RFID is about 30 times faster at checking inventory than bar code systems. Carnevale, whose company also sells bar code systems, says Sissy’s Log Cabin is the only jeweler using the RFID system JCS offers and may be the only jeweler in the United States to use RFID for inventory management. “I’m fairly certain that we are the only company that has an active RFID implementation system in the market,” he says.

“They are our first customer that’s using it on a daily basis,” Carnevale says. “To the best of my knowledge it is not being implemented in any stores. It’s cutting-edge technology, and we worked on it for years before it was ready to rock and roll in a retail environment.”

Carnevale says it’s similar to using bar codes. A tag, which contains a microchip, goes on each piece of jewelry and is unique to that piece. Then each piece of jewelry gets “associated,” using a tool known as an “associator,” which is attached to a dedicated computer.

“The associator reads the RFID chip when the chip is placed on it, and it feeds that number into an RFID file that also has the SKU data,” Carnevale explains. “It’s the only way to know the 16-digit RFID number. Later, when scanning a tray [with the wand, which contains the antenna that reads the chip], the scanners just read the RFID numbers, and our software relates that number to the actual item.” Jones adds that once a piece of jewelry is sold, they can retrieve the microchip and place it on another piece of jewelry.

Carnevale notes that one drawback with this type of system is price—it costs about $12,000 to implement. “Unfortunately, because of the economy, many people have been interested but until things turn around I don’t know how many people will be able to buy it,” he says. The system JCS offers works only with the company’s point-of-service software. In addition, each piece of jewelry must be individually associated into the system, which takes time, but once the inventory is entered the user need only maintain it.

For Jones, RFID’s quickness and ease-of-use has more than made up for the cost of the system. “I am shocked that more people don’t have it,” she says, “It’s a wonderful tool.”

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