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Sportswear Retailers Gain Home Run With RFID

May 06th, 2018 Retail - Apparel - Features
By Claire Swedberg
Stadium AB and Lids, both using a UHF RFID-based solution from SML, report on how the technology boosted inventory accuracy under the highly diverse, high-pressure environment of sportswear and sporting goods sales.

Lids and Stadium AB are among the sports-related retailers that have benefitted from using radio frequency identification technology to manage fast-moving inventory that must keep up with sports equipment and seasonal trends. Lids conducted an RFID project to determine whether it could better manage its merchandise following the World Series in the winning city (Houston), while Stadium AB, located in Sweden, carried out an RFID pilot to manage fast rotations of products ranging from kayaks to apparel to shoe laces.

The two companies spoke about their projects with Dean Frew, the CTO and senior VP of RFID solutions at SMLthe company that provided them with the RFID tag and software technologyat last month's RFID Journal LIVE! 2018 conference an exhibition, held in Orlando, Fla.

Dean Frew
For both projects, Frew says, the companies used Zebra Technologies handheld readers to manage stock counts, execute replenishment and receive goods. SML's Clarity application includes a handheld device and cloud-based platform. Both deployments employed Microsoft Azure, managed by SML, for its cloud-based delivery service platform.

Lids, headquartered in Zionsville, Ind., sells professional and college team athletic goods for fanswhether for the NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB. The company must meet heavy demands before and during specific seasons, and this ramps up further around major competitions like the Super Bowl and the World Series. The company operates 1,200 stores throughout the United States and Canada, and sells 170,000 stock-keeping units (SKUs), for a total of 43 million units sold annually.

A sizable percentage of those sales are centered around large sporting events. Therefore, the seasonal demands for products regarding these events can be overwhelming, says Greg Czerpak, Lids' senior VP of merchandising. The retailer must be able to follow the trends for each sport during every season, and quickly route team-specific products to stores at the place and time for which demand is expected to be high.

For last year's World Series, that meant Houston and Los Angeles, home to the Astros and the Dodgers, as well as their fans. These are two heavily populated markets, geographically far apart, Czerpak says, and would require considerable logistical efforts to feed products to those locations as fast as the goods were sold.

After Houston won the World Series, the pilot was launched in that city within hours after the last pitch. Traditionally, a sales event like this would require Lids personnel to be on site counting products manually, viewing sales reports and trying to keep up with those reports to replenish products. The greatest pressure, Czerpak says, falls at the beginning of an event, once the World Series teams rise to the top, as well as following a big win. Sales for products are heaviest during the first 72 hours after a win.

Greg Czerpak
Lids tagged all of its inventory at its Houston distribution facility, and used SML's Clarity software to capture and manage the collected data. As boxes of merchandise arrived at the store from the DC, employees unpacked them and used Zebra RFD8500 handheld sled readers and Android devices to capture the tag ID of every item, thereby updating in-store inventory counts. During the first three days after the Astros win, the items were counted via the RFID readers every 15 to 30 minutes during store operations. Staff members at Lids' headquarters location were able to view, in near-real-time, what inventory assortment was in the store, and thus initiate replenishment orders rapidly. Goods were then replenished from the vendor.

There were immediate learnings from the technology, Czerpak says. "We learned that what we anticipated in sales, from a size perspective, wasn't accurate," he states. The company reports that it is now reviewing what the next phase of its RFID deployment may consist of.

In Sweden, Stadium AB sells retail sportswear and training clothes, as well as sports-related merchandise. The company, founded in 1974, is headquartered in the city of Norrkping, while its stores are located throughout Europe. In fact, it is one of the continent's largest sporting goods chains, with approximately 170 locations in Sweden, Germany and Finland. The firm sells $500 million worth of merchandise annually, including 35 million individual items.

Because the merchandise stocked at each store is so diverse, keeping inventory counts accurate and preventing out-of-stock events can be singularly challenging, says Johan Stenstrm, a supply chain technologist at Stadium AB. The company had believed it enjoyed a reasonably high inventory accuracy at its stores. However, after putting RFID in place for a pilot at two test stores, it found that accuracy without RFID was only between 65 and 73 percent.

For the pilot, the firm tagged products at its distribution center and used the same Zebra sled reader that Lids employed to interrogate the tags as they were applied. The tags were then read upon receipt at the two participating stores, and periodically throughout the days following, during inventory counts.

Johan Stenstrm
On the first day of the pilot, Stenstrm recalls, he was onsite visiting a store and witnessed shoppers browsing through merchandise. A woman was looking for a pair of skates, and sales personnel began manually searching for the size and style of skates she sought, then began looking in the back room. In the meantime, Stenstrm says, he offered to help the customer and employed the handheld reader, in Geiger counter mode, to input that product and then walk around the store. He quickly discovered that the skates were, in fact, on the other side of the aisle in which they had been searching. He produced the skates and the customer made her purchase. The sales person returned from the back room, discovered the product had been located with RFID and asked to begin using the technology for his own sales purposes.

Store managers now have confidence in what inventory they have onsite, Stenstrm says, with accuracy at about 98 percent. That inventory accuracy allows the company to more easily adopt the omnichannel model of sales online, since it can be sure products are where the software indicates they are. The technology is still in use at both pilot stores.

Before the pilot, Stenstrm says, "We hadn't realized how easy it is to misplace an item. It could end up in a corner somewhere," with the sales staff and customers unable to find it. With the RFID system in place, he notes, that problem is eliminated. "If the ERP [enterprise resource planning system] says we have a product, we can be sure it's right."