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Bookshop tags texts with RFID

Jo Best / Silicon.com | October 11 2006

Using RFID in the retail supply chain is reasonably common these days - but taking the chips down to the level of individual items is still met with raised eyebrows.

Few pilots are underway, and even fewer real world rollouts, but one Dutch bookshop chain is leading the way.

BGN has 42 stores across the country and has just gone live with its first item-level RFID rollout. Each of the books in BGN's Almere store is chipped and a second store, in Maastricht, will soon go the same way, allowing the retailer to track each book from its central warehouse to the shop floor.

According to BGN's CIO Jan Vink, despite the relative immaturity of item-level tagging, the company saw the benefits immediately and the board did not shy away from approving the project.

He said the company does not balk at the cost of RFID chips, still regarded by many as prohibitively high for item-level tagging, and believes the process benefits and improvements on the previous infrastructure more than justify the cost.

Vink said: "Technology right now has to contribute to our targets... there was a push from the board of directors," adding the company CEO is a big supporter of the project.

The book chain first considered turning to RFID in late 2005 after bringing together its tech team and suppliers.

The retailer however turned its attention to the item-level rather than distribution centre tests. Vink explained: "We weren't so focused on the supply chain - there were enough pilots going on."

He said: "We were 100 per cent for an item-level [tagging project], otherwise we wouldn't get the enormous advantages we expected."

All books destined to be sold at BGN are chipped when they arrive from the company's third party supplier and given a unique number. Using a system from Progress, staff can check exactly where a book is in the supply chain - whether its been shipped, if it's in store and, if so, where exactly to find it - and so can customers.

Using the retailer's website, shoppers can find out if what they want is in stock and where they can lay their hands on it or, if BGN doesn't have the book they want it, they can order it. Book lovers can then choose to be alerted by text or SMS when their chosen tome lands at BGN.

The book chain also introduced electronic kiosks, where book buyers can query the database of book titles and authors - using parts of either - and get an idea of what's available on the shop floor.

According to Vink, generation 2.0 is already keen on quizzing the electronic shop assistants. "There's a difference in generation. The younger generation is always going to the kiosk not the service desk and they're influencing the older generation," he said.

Among the benefits Vink has seen from going for item-level tagging is a reduced risk of books being out of stock, and the ability to track which books are flying off the shelves and which haven't moved in a while. In addition, taking an inventory has become less of a headache. In the pre-RFID days, a stock-take would necessitate shutting up shop for a day. Now, says Vink, they don't have to close the store.

BGN expects to see return on investment within 14 months and is now building a link between the RFID system and its Business Objects business intelligence software.

The chain is also looking at what else tech can do for the business. One option under consideration is selective printing-on-demand, something that could well be popular with students - allowing them to print just the chapters they need from a textbook, for example.

But the immediate future is more RFID, as the rest of the chain's consumer book stores start to chip their books. Vink told silicon.com: "It saved us quite a considerable amount of money."


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