The Human Factor Could Be Derailing RFID

Retail IT leaders today are still struggling with RFID, to find a way to salvage years of effort and to try and eek out some provable profits.

Staples Canada this week detailed some impressive results with reusable active-tag RFID, delivering an attractive 8-cent/chip cost, an extremely accurate read-rate, a sharp reduction of out-of-stocks and even a huge drop in shrink.

But most trials are having much more modest results. But even those modest improvements are not always materializing when the trials morph into full deployments and John Fontanella—a longtime RFID observer whose dayjob is VP/Research for AMR Research—thinks he may know why.

Fontanella, whose RFID projections and predictions have held true over the many years I've quoted him, concedes some of the technology's challenges, but adds that a huge factor in the problem is entirely human.

"It's going to take a lot more than technology," Fontanella said. "People are going to have to change the way they work."

Fontanella's point is that retail managers—from the store up to the executive suite—like to make gut decisions. The most perfect-performing RFID supply-chain enhacement—or chip-powered purchasing projection—won't help the chain's spreadsheet unless managers are prepared to act on those recommendations regarding inventory and cycle counting.

Managers "are going to have to build dependence on RFID. Instead of routing through styles of slacks, will they trust it?" he asked.

It's a good question and a keen observation on human behavior. The managers in the field are often the ones who are most suspicious about RFID claims. And if they internalize those suspicions and opt to ignore the recommendations, then it's obvious the chips will have no positive impact. Textbook self-fulfilling prophecy.

This all underscores how training and getting buy-in from managers in the field is not merely an HR nicety and a morale booster. It might make the difference between the success and failure of a technology rollout.