What’s Your Frequency? How RFID Is Revolutionizing Inventory Management

Once upon a time, inventory management in the jewelry trade was a low-tech, time-consuming affair. Retailers would walk the floor, taking notes of the product numbers of jewelry displayed in cases and stored in vaults. They’d then check that list against original inventory take-in records. If there was a discrepancy, the retailer needed to “reconcile” the difference, retail lingo for determining whether jewelry was missing or had simply been misplaced.

Then, about 15 years ago, UPC barcodes made inroads with retailers. Said to reduce shrinkage, prevent theft or loss, and, thus, maintain margins, they failed to deliver. Easily damaged, the coded tags were difficult to scan, often forcing jewelers to do hand counts. 

Plenty of retailers still rely on barcodes or even the tried-and-true pen-and-paper method. But recently, a cohort of tech-savvy retailers has embraced RFID, or radio frequency identification, a decades-old technology that wirelessly transmits information about an object using a scanning device that emits radio waves. If you’ve ever had your pet chipped with an ID tag or used an EZPass at a tollbooth, you’ve benefitted from RFID.

RFID differs from barcodes because objects being scanned don’t rely upon time-consuming “line of sight” scanning. An RFID scanner can pick up radio frequencies with a broad scan of a display case—resulting in a much faster, more reliable inventory check.

Sissy’s Log Cabin in Little Rock, Ark., has been using RFID technology for five years. “Our goal with RFID is to do complete inventory counts every month instead of once a year,” says Little Rock store manager Jason Richard. “I have a monthly schedule to scan five to six cases a day to identity missing pieces.”

For jewelers, the technology has become more cost-efficient and easier to implement in recent years. One big reason: Manufacturers have brought down the cost of the actual RFID tag. In the past, reusable plastic “keeper” tags cost $2 to $3 per unit. Although keeper tags are still in use, coated paper tags can be produced as cheaply as 35 cents each, according to Keven Peck, president of RFID technology provider TracTech Systems. And the startup costs won’t break the bank: Packages range from plug-and-go systems priced between $500 and $1,000 to RFID systems using UHF (Ultra High Frequency) technology costing several thousands of dollars.

With costs coming down and learning curves flattening out, retail jewelers are poised to embrace RFID as part of a sea change in how they approach inventory management. Kyle Moore, a sales representative for Northern Apex, an RFID company, calls it “intelligent inventory.”

“RFID-tagged merchandise would allow retail jewelers to do detailed inventory counts daily as part of this new approach, which is the direction the industry is headed with [RFID and] POS integration,” Moore says.

Early adopters are finding that in a world where time is money, RFID quickly pays for itself. “It used to take us two months to do a full store inventory,” says Becky Sims, the store manager at Lubbock, Texas–based Thacker Jewelry, whose store has been using RFID technology for two years. “Now we can do it in a day.”

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