Counting Blouses Made Easy

The Marc O'Polo fashion label is one of the leading brands in the premium casual segment with more than 2,600 stores and retail partners. Logistics is one of the core tasks within the company owing to short collection cycles and rapidly changing trends. Flexibility, customer focus and, above all, speed are vital. Marc O’Polo will in future be deploying RFID in order to optimise its processes. Most of the technical equipment required for this will be supplied by Kathrein.

RFID stands for "radio frequency identification", i.e. the identification of products by means of electromagnetic waves. Marc O'Polo is a pioneer of the use of RFID in the fashion segment since, in contrast to department stores with many different labels, the company retains control over all the processes. This means that the big advantage of being able to track goods along the entire supply chain can actually be used."We originally had not thought about using RFID for the entire logistics process," explains Jana Hildenbrand, Director Sales Support at Marc O'Polo. Initially it was only a matter of installing the system in our own stores in order to optimize goods availability, processing at the cash register and garment tagging. We soon recognised during project planning that RFID also brings significant improvements to the supply chain. Now each individual product is given an individual RFID tag after completion in the factory and can therefore be tracked all the way from production to the store.

Deliveries are checked in next to no time

"We used to have to believe what was stated on the delivery note since detailed inspection would have cost too much in terms of time and manpower," Jana Hildenbrand says. "In future it will be easy for us to determine whether a shipment actually contains the 2,000 blouses that we were advised of. The central warehouse is being equipped with a new control system for incoming goods. The boxes are conveyed unopened past a reading device, the RFID tags on the goods are automatically scanned and it is immediately clear whether the details on the delivery note are correct.

Before the project started, Marc O'Polo first calculated what investment was required and what financial benefit RFID technology would bring. The conclusion was that a very high investment would have to be made but the costs would already be recouped in the third year after implementation. Working together with a firm of management consultants, the fashion label set about looking for the right partner for the project in 2012. There were various potential providers to choose from. "We set up a test scenario reflecting what happens in our daily practice," says Peter Teufel, Director IT at Marc O'Polo, describing the approach. "For example, we performed stress tests to examine how the equipment would read a package containing 200 silk scarves lying close together. A 100-per cent reading rate cannot be achieved under such circumstances, but the result should be as close as possible. The system from Kathrein was able to do the job and was also impressive in terms of price/performance." What also played a role was how unobtrusive the antennas were that were used to capture the signal from the RFID transponders on the goods. "In this case it was possible to use various options with Kathrein," adds Teufel.

Shorter waiting times at the cash register

Apart from logistics, the use of RFID also brought the expected benefits in the store. The items of clothing and accessories can easily be captured using a mobile handheld scanner. This means that sales staff can more easily determine which items of what size have to be fetched from the storeroom. The process at the cash register is faster, too. Staffs no longer scan individual barcodes. And since the RFID tag is also used to secure the goods, it is no longer necessary to remove a hard plastic tag. Customers simply place their articles on the counter. These are then scanned and the purchase is confirmed following payment. The system automatically knows that the goods may legitimately leave the store.

Theft detection is a challenge for RFID in technical terms since the system must recognise whether for example a pair of trousers in the entrance area is being presented or is already on its way out of the store. "We are talking here of a complicated movement profile for an RFID transponder," explains Thomas Brunner, Sales Manager at Kathrein RFID. For this purpose there are four antennas installed on the ceiling of every Marc O’Polo store that continuously capture data. Special software evaluates this data and can determine based on various parameters whether someone is trying to steal the trousers or whether the gentlemen simply wishes to show them to his wife standing at the shelf opposite.

Processes and premises must be customized

For all the benefits of RFID there are still a few sticking points. "You cannot assume that everything will be simpler and faster," acknowledges Jana Hildenbrand. For example, the structural constraints of the stores must be taken into account. Without appropriate adjustments it is easily possible for articles in the storeroom to be scanned when only the stock in the store itself is to be captured. For stock-taking, care must be taken to ensure that a tag is attached to each article and especially that there are no loose tags lying around. "It is not simply that you just walk through the store to complete stock-taking," says Marc O'Polo's RFID project manager. It is important to deliberately slow down some processes and, above all, to thoroughly train staff in order to ensure that they understand the equipment.

Marc O’Polo intends completing the rollout of RFID technology across all stores by summer, something which has not gone unnoticed in the industry. "We have already received initial enquiries from other companies," says Jana Hildenbrand, "but we first want to gain some experience and then we can perhaps give presentations on the subject later."

For detailed information about Kathrein RFID, see