NEW YORK — Like any whirlwind change, the implementation of radio frequency identification is causing growing pains among vendors scrambling to meet Wal-Mart’s January deadline.

Vendors already jumping headfirst into RFID shared their missteps, lessons and successes Thursday at the American Apparel & Footwear Association’s “RFID Real World Experiences in the Sewn Products Industry” seminar.

The seminar comes as vendors continue evaluating readers, scanners, tag encoders and printers in preparation for both Wal-Mart’s deadline and anticipated mandates from other retailers such as Target Corp. and Metro Group.

While the vendors see the potential for savings down the road, they expect RFID to cost them big in the short term.

“We’ve been standing on this cliff, waiting to get into the RFID world, but haven’t because of price,” said Jim Jackson, director of communications infrastructure at VF Corp., the world’s largest apparel supplier. “Wal-Mart isn’t pushing us off the cliff, but they are going to bungee jump with us.”

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. Russ Brown, director of information systems at Russell Corp., has learned that chips can “fry” when exposed to static or may not be read if a forklift moves too fast or slow.

“You are going to have bad tags. Accept it,” Brown said. “Be prepared for triage steps to address these issues.”

Liz Claiborne Inc. is having success with reusing tags embedded in trolleys at its 900,000-square-foot facility in Cincinatti. They’ve been able to bring costs down this way: They pay $3.50 for a tag, which has the capacity to be rewritten 100,000 times, according to Brian O’Donnell, director of technical operations and planning for Liz Claiborne.

Still, the accuracy rates of readings aren’t as high as he’d like.

“You really need to slow down, take a look at the technology and find out: ‘Is this the right technology for me to use?’” O’Donnell said.

VF Corp. expects to be in compliance with Wal-Mart’s mandate, which requires that cases and pallets be RFID-tagged by January. All seven of VF’s distribution centers will be equipped in time, Jackson said.

This story first appeared in the July 26, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

With the technology now under control, the company remains concerned about cost. Jackson said VF had expected suppliers to provide tags at a discount, since the company would purchase roughly a half-billion tags, but “that didn’t end up to be the case.”

Issues with standardization and availability also gave Jackson pause.

“I’m not sure everyone at that top 100 or top 137 [suppliers to Wal-Mart] will be able to get all the tags they need,” he added.

Still, the companies who spoke at the conference acknowledged that RFID will someday be as ubiquitous as the UPS bar code.

“The hinge on victory or loss is going to be on how well you execute,” Brown said. “RFID is here to stay. It’s going to be part of your life, it’s going to be part of your strategy, it’s going to be part of your business going forward.”