Spar News

SPAR Uses RFID to Track Promotional Displays, July 25, 2007

The supplier of merchandising services to product manufacturers and retailers is involved in several pilots employing active tags to provide real-time status reports and alerts.

By Claire Swedberg

July 25, 2007-SPAR, a supplier of merchandising and other marketing services to retailers and product manufacturers, is testing RFID technology in retail locations to track promotional displays, as well as personnel entering and exiting stores to help maintain those displays.

The two-pronged solution, SPARTrac, tracks personnel and promotional displays in stores to provide retailers and suppliers easy access to information about the displays' locations and when they arrived there. SPAR's labor-tracking system, consisting of RFID badges and Web-based tracking software, enables SPAR, retailers and product manufacturers to determine the date and time SPAR employees enter a store, as well as how long they are there and the sections of the store in which they dedicate their time. The entire solution being piloted, says Kori Belzer, SPAR's chief operating officer, is intended to give retailers and suppliers actionable information about the way store merchandise is being handled, and to provide alerts whenever a matter needs attending to.

Headquartered in Tarrytown, N.Y., SPAR has personnel who visit stores in 11 countries to provide support in setting up promotional displays, identify low-stock or out-of-stock items on shelves, apply shelf labels and prepare planograms (diagrams illustrating how products should be displayed). Approximately 4,500 SPAR merchandising specialists visit stores in the United States on any given day, for a total of about 1.5 million annual visits. SPAR prepares reports for stores and product suppliers about the work being done, noting any action that might need to be taken. With the use of RFID, Belzer says, these reports could be automated, providing SPAR and its clients with real-time visibility into the locations of promotional displays and SPAR employees in the store, as well as the time those workers spend there.

The RFID pilots involve multiple undisclosed retailers, Belzer says-one in South Africa and several in the United States-and consist of tracking DVD products and other unnamed items in promotional displays, as well as tracking personnel.

In the case of labor tracking, each participating SPAR representative wears an active 433 MHz RFID-enabled ID badge, provided by Wavetrend. In the South African pilot, says Panos Mastrogiannis, SPAR's vice president of IT, 50 to 60 SPAR employees wear the badges while working up to three separate shifts at the single participating store. An employee entering the store passes one of about seven RFID interrogators deployed around the site. The reader captures each badge's unique ID number, associated with the specific employee, and sends that number via a cabled connection to a computer, along with its own identifying number.

The computer transmits this data over an Ethernet connection to SPAR's server, where the information is interpreted and made available to authorized parties. The interrogators represent zones, Mastrogiannis says, each associated with a section of the store. This allows the system to track the location of both employees and promotional displays. First launched in South Africa about a year ago, the labor-tracking system is also being piloted in U.S. stores, in the same manner and using the same hardware.

SPAR personnel apply similar Wavetrend RFID tags to displays in each store's back room. When a display is moved from the back room to the sales floor, the RFID interrogators capture its ID tag and send the ID number and time of day-in the same manner as labor-tracking data-to the SPAR-hosted server. The pilots' participants can then access data about both labor and promotional displays on the server's Execution Map, which features red, green and purple dots signifying the movement of the tagged items or badges. A red dot indicates a store has not yet been visited, green means the merchandise specialist has already completed a store visit and purple indicates the representative is currently on site.

Moreover, the pilots include a method of alerting SPAR if an actionable event occurs. For example, if a display is moved to the back room before it is supposed to be relocated, or if an employee with a SPAR badge enters an unauthorized area, the system sends an alert to SPAR, which can then notify interested parties via e-mail, cell phone or some other method.

The RFID interrogators and other infrastructure needed for such a system are not yet in place in most of the world's stores. Still, Belzer predicts it's just a matter of time before that's no longer the case. "I believe the way of the future will have readers at all retailers," she says. "I think they will be in the store front, the back door. I believe retailers will use it to prevent shrinkage." The next phase of the pilot will include the testing of passive EPC Gen 2 UHF RFID tags. This phase, Mastrogiannis, is being conducted at the request of a new participant-a retailer in Japan.

The RFID pilots using active 433 MHz tags will continue with no specific completion date. "We are constantly enhancing the pilot," Belzer says, citing the alert system recently added to the U.S. and South African trials. "Information is good," she states, "but taking action on information is key here. We're giving everybody real-time visibility, as well as alerting."

About SPAR Group

SPAR Group, Inc., a diversified international marketing services company, provides a broad array of services to help manufacturers and retailers improve their sales, operating efficiency and profits at retail worldwide. Services include in-store merchandising and event staffing, RFID and other technology and research, covering all product classifications and all classes of trade, including mass market, drug store, electronic store, convenience store and grocery chains. The company operates throughout the United States and internationally in Japan, Canada, Turkey, South Africa, India, Romania, China, Lithuania, Australia, Latvia and New Zealand. For more information, visit SPAR Group's Web site, www.sparinc.com