The one-store RFID success story

by Andy Kowl

If it is worth it for one bike shop to implement RFID, can your company’s use of the technology be all that far behind?

Uptown Cycles, a customer service-dedicated bicycle retailer in Charlotte, N.C., recently was mentioned in a flurry of press releases about their use of RFID. I had the chance to catch up with owner Chris Sheehan and learn how he approached this.

Let’s face it: when you think of RFID implementations you don’t often think of a one-store solution. Has RFID gotten to the point there is ROI for a small business with a handful of employees?

My first reaction is to feel happy the industry may be at the point ROI comes in a size for Main Street. Then I thought, nostalgically, despite all the talk of “Main Street” by politicians and pundits, how many one and two-store retailers are there?

When I am near Chicago, Dallas, San Jose, Boston or here in Rockville, Md., everywhere I look is Sports Authority, Barnes & Noble, Banana Republic . . . you can name the others. I grew up when lone wolf stores and local chains were dominant. Even I had a single shop, a bookstore in New York’s SoHo, as empty warehouses were becoming mega-million-dollar lofts.

Talking to Chris Sheehan restored some of my faith that smart guys like him can always make room in the marketplace. “We knew when we opened the shop we weren’t going to have a ton of employees,” he said in New York at the recent NRF retail Big Show, at the UPM Raflatac exhibit—makers the tags they use.

And for those employees they do have, the important thing is customer service, not inventory chores. For example, the shop has a training facility in the back. You can bring your bike in and they hook you up to rigs which allow you to challenge your own speed and endurance. When they are helping customers in the back, people can be unattended in the front. RFID has already reduced theft while staff was looking elsewhere.

Kudos to Freedom Shopping, a North Carolina-based solution provider that has been offering RFID since 2005. Their RFID product line is called FLiP. I am especially glad to see they are servicing small retailers, and delighted when I see how clearly they make their case about the solutions and benefits each retailer can receive. They state how quickly you will achieve ROI, and I bet they can show you that, too.

Uptown Cycles has a kiosk system, which provides information and can do transactions. Sheehan told me they haven’t really used the transaction part much; but a few times as someone with a hidden item has passed the kiosk on their way to leave the store, the kiosk asked in its clear voice, “Do you want to check out?” People find all sorts of ways to turn around and ditch their booty so the store doesn’t take the loss. One guy had a $70 tire he was trying to sneak out with.

Chris Sheehan said the shop’s use of RFID tagging has definitely reduced the need to hire as much staff as they might otherwise need. “There is a bike shop in Charlotte with one employee just doing inventory,” he shook his head.

Uptown Cycles deployed the FLiP system in one week with no disruption to its normal operating processes. Merchants and their integration partners can integrate RFID into existing POS systems quickly and easily, they say. The tools leverage stores’ existing inventory database, eliminating the potential for human error and process disruption due to redundant data, while enabling retailers of all sizes to benefit from RFID’s ability to drive critical process improvements.

The system includes fixed and handheld RFID scanners, a software bridge that syncs the RFID tag database with the POS system, a self-service payment kiosk and an RFID-powered intelligent EAS system. To tag existing inventory or receive new shipments, employees use RFID handhelds to scan product bar codes; the system identifies goods in the POS system, queries for item quantities and wirelessly sends information to a Zebra Technologies’ RZ400 printer. The printer generates an encoded RFID tag.

Recently I had spoken with my old friend Neil, who owns two ski shops. The stores rent about 8-900 pairs of skis each winter weekend, Neil tells me; and he wondered if RFID tagging could reduce some of the chaos as everyone brings their skis back at more or less the same time.

Of course I told Neil there is a solution that can serve his needs. I can envision a couple; but as you may know we do not sell RFID. So I asked some supplier friends about one- or two-store solutions, and the answer was always along the lines of, ‘that’s cute, but we’re after bigger game.’

Essentially, most RFID solution providers want to leave the single store owner to “the other guy.” I guess maybe Freedom Shopping is one of the other guys. They sure are a company that articulates its solutions as clearly as anyone.