Wal-Mart Forges Ahead with RFID

RFID for Wal-Mart is a long-term journey that has just begun. The retail giant plans to add more suppliers and double the number of stores and clubs that are RFID-enabled.

There were two evident truths at the RFID World conference in Dallas: Wal-Mart Stores is the impetus behind the technologys recent popularity; and RFID for Wal-Mart is a long-term journey. One thats only just begun.

The biggest retailer in the world, Wal-Mart currently has 300 suppliers sending products to 500 RFID-enabled Wal-Mart and Sams Club stores.

It has five distribution centers that are able to take in RFID-tagged pallets and cases from suppliers.

In January 2007, Wal-Mart plans to add more suppliers and double the number of stores and clubs that are RFID-enabled, so that more than 1,000 stores can receive tagged goods.

By that time, the company will have added 600 suppliers sending tagged goods to its stores and distribution centers.

In addition to adding more suppliers and more stores with RFID capabilities, Wal-Mart is also pursuing several proof of concept areas this year around sensor technology.

The idea is to be able to put a better quality of product on the shelf for its customers—think produce on supermarket shelves—and get products to the shelf quicker.

"Sensor tags are around $20. Thats a little high cost, but we want to find a way to put bananas on shelves in our food department so theyre at the perfect ripeness," said Carolyn Walters, vice president of Information Systems at Wal-Mart, during an RFID World panel discussion in Dallas on Feb. 28.

Walton explained that as a crate of bananas comes into Wal-Marts distribution center, it is ripened by being exposed to nitrogen.

The concept that Wal-Mart is pursuing is tagging those bananas, for example, with an RFID tag that identifies where the shipment has been and how much nitrogen it needs to be exposed to, to be perfectly ripened by the time it hits the store shelf.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about Wal-Mart increasing the size of its database.

Another related proof of concept is getting products from a truck to the shelf at the right time.

Walton explained that the typical Wal-Mart Super Center receives seven truck loads of freight a day.

That amounts to about 7,000 boxes that have to be organized and stacked before they can be moved to a shelf.

"What would it be like if associates had some type of wearable device that, as a box comes into their facility information is there that says, this box needs to go straight to the shelf—dont stack it so its staged for tomorrow or the next day. It needs to go now?" said Walton. "The numbers are big: 7,000 boxes a day."

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