Most RFID deployments in retail today are closed-loop solutions that have the initial use cases covered by one software vendor. This is not uncommon in the early adoption phase of a new technology: it minimises risk for a customer and it optimises the performance of the total solution, as the vendor is able to choose freely in which module to solve a technological challenge.
However, it is unlikely that this is going to remain the case going forward. While most retailers start with a limited number of use cases when they roll-out RFID, adoption of new use cases quickly emerges after that. Think about sales floor refill, loss prevention, mobile check-out - but also intelligent mirrors in the fitting room, using RFID in the distribution centre and other customer interaction features. Some use cases will be covered by the initial vendor supplying the solution, while others are better covered by a specialist company in a specific area.
While most retailers start with only one use case when they roll-out RFID (e.g. weekly store counts), adoption of new use cases quickly emerges after that.
This makes sense, why would you not select a best-of-breed approach? This is similar to other mature technologies: if you look at barcode technology, there is no single vendor supplying a 'barcode solution': the technology is extremely well standardised, such that it is generic enough that everybody can build applications on top of it. This is most definitely also the way forward with RFID.
A standardised protocol to exchange information on RFID events is critically important for this to happen. If not, it will be a challenge for every new use case to connect to the data generated by existing use cases and systems; or add additional data to it. This will lead to high cost, and slows down adoption of those use cases.
Fortunately, there is a solution. That solution is a standardised interface for RFID events by GS1 called ‘EPCIS’: Electronic Product Code Information Services.
The EPCIS standard defines two things: a data model for RFID events, and an API interface to exchange those events between two systems.
An RFID event ('EPCIS event') typically consists of a What (‘red shirt size M number 2343’), a Why (‘received the item, it is now stocked’), a When (‘this morning at 8:23’) and a Where (‘the stockroom of store 92’). Based on all these events, it is possible to derive the existing and historic status of items, and thus the stock levels in the store, whether an item is sold or not, etc.
The API interfaces allow to store new events (‘the item is now sold’, ‘the item arrived in the store’) or to query information about an item (‘is this product still available in the stockroom’). Events can be polled for (‘give me all events that match these conditions’), or you can subscribe to events (‘as soon as there is a new event matching those conditions, please send it over’).
To give some examples, three cases are explained below where EPCIS is beneficial. The first two use cases are based on exchanging information between vendors and systems; the third use case involves having a centralised repository storing all events. Of course, this list is far from exhaustive, and more use cases will surely appear.
Due to the different scopes, integration requirements with Warehouse Management Systems and environmental differences, it makes sense to utilise a different RFID system in the DCs versus the retail stores. Still, when receiving items in the store, you want to verify that the shipment is 100% correct against what left the DC. Using EPCIS, a DC system can send out a shipment manifest to the store system, and be verified later.
Retailers already have a check-out system, which is not likely to be replaced by the RFID system used for stock management. However, by using EPCIS, the check-out system is able to deliver sales and return events in a standardised way to the RFID stock management system.
There are a lot of benefits of tracking items all the way along the supply chain, and the data that results from this is able to give powerful insights. If every part of the supply chain is EPCIS compatible, they can create events for items that are seen and store them in a centralised repository. The centralised repository then has a total view of the supply chain, which can be used to analyse everything that is happening - on item level data.
Of course, those use cases are not always relevant when starting to deploy RFID initially. It makes however a lot of sense to include EPCIS from day one, as it will be extremely difficult to bolt it on at a later stage, which will limit the expansion to new use cases.
To summarise, there are three reasons why EPCIS is beneficial for an RFID deployment in a retail environment.
Based on this, I believe that EPCIS is a core technology that should be part of every deployment of RFID in retail applications. More information on EPCIS can be found on the GS1 website.