BAR CODING FINDING APPLICATIONS BEYOND THE POINT OF SALE
2-D BAR CODING IS THE NEXT GENERATION, SYSTEMS VENDORS SAY
Byline: MAUREEN CONDON
NEW YORK — Apparel retailers and manufacturers are finding that the applications for bar coding — in combination with handheld computers and RF (radio frequency) devices — are multiplying, as bar coding technology continues to evolve. For apparel manufacturers, bar coding facilitates everything from inventory and warehousing to picking-and-packing and shipping, according to bar-code scanner manufacturers. Retailers are also finding that everything from inventory to space planning to price markdowns can be done more quickly and efficiently using bar coding, the scanner manufacturers say.
The acceptance of bar coding, however, is not as widespread as might be expected, given its high visibility at the retail level.
“The acceptance of bar coding in the apparel industry is anywhere from 40 percent to 75 percent,” says Judy Murrah, director of industry marketing, Symbol Technologies Inc., in Bohemia, N.Y. Symbol, she said, is the largest company in the bar-code industry and makes bar-code scanners, handheld computers used for inventory, and RF devices.
Murrah stated, “The further you go back from point of sale, the less use there is of bar coding.” She estimated that 40 percent of manufacturers and distributors use it, while up to 75 percent of retailers use it at point of sale.
Murrah said, “I’ve worked in this industry for 10 years and no one knew what a bar code was 10 years ago. It didn’t take hold in general merchandising until 1985.”
But bar coding is taking hold now for applications prior to the point of sale. And retailers, with the help of scanner manufacturers, are finding all sorts of creative applications for bar coding in their stores.
“Bar codes give retailers speed and accuracy, and they rely on these to have a better-managed business. So it’s a good foundation for good management as time goes on,” said Murrah.
She explained that most department stores are using bar-code scanners with handheld computers and RF devices that communicate with the store’s main computer for inventory tracking and control. “You can count and reorder items right from the store floor,” she said. “RF devices, like a cellular phone, allow salespeople to ‘talk’ to the store’s host computer.”
Murrah explained that retailers are also using these handheld computers with bar-code scanners and RF devices to do space planning in their stores.
A salesperson or store manager can stroll through the store and scan the bar codes on the merchandise on display. Using the handheld computer with the RF device to communicate with the main computer, retail managers can look at the sales of any item over time in that location. “If it’s not selling well, they can decide to move it to a different area of the store,” Murrah said.
Jim Traxler, vice-president, retail marketing of Texlon Corp., Akron, Ohio, another major manufacturer of bar-code scanners, handheld computers and RF devices said, “Typically this type of application would be done on a desktop computer, but now you can take the computer with you out onto the floor and can get the same information while you are out looking at the merchandise. You can look at a fixture — a rack or shelf — and see what its gross margin is and see if you want to change the layout of the merchandise.”
Murrah said, “Most innovative retailers are also using these scanners and handheld computers to answer customers’ questions about merchandise availability as they walk through the aisles of the store.”
Another innovative use for bar coding is in price markdowns. Murrah said, “If a retail chain were to put in a markdown or price change without this technology, headquarters would mail a computer report to the store. Store personnel would then have to look for stock numbers and have to write the new prices on the tickets.
“Now, retailers can electronically send information to stores, and store personnel can scan the items and print out new price tickets right on the floor. It eliminates visual identification of the merchandise to be marked down, so you can cut time in half and then take the people who are doing such administrative tasks and put them to use selling.”
Traxler said, “Bar coding is pervasive throughout the apparel industry and has facilitated the gathering of point-of-sale information that can then feed the replenishment process and make such concepts as Quick Response and Just-In-Time manufacturing become a reality.
“Bar coding along with EDI [electronic data interchange] has enabled the entire merchandising cycle to be a closed-loop system. Everybody in the distribution chain can get all the information they need.”
Manufacturers, as well as retailers, are seeing the benefits of bar coding, according to Alan Diamond, president of Apparel Data Systems, New York, N.Y.
“Our software supports ‘pick and pack’ — where you shoot the bar code on the outside of the box with a laser gun, and it verifies that what’s in the box and what’s on the retailer’s order are the same. Then there are no chargebacks for the wrong deliveries.
“At some point in time, retailers will dump apparel manufactures who are not using this system,” Diamond said.
The acceptance of bar coding among manufacturers, and the number of innovative applications it offers both retailers and manufacturers in the apparel industry, will continue to grow, Murrah and Traxler agree, as the technology evolves.
“One interesting thing is getting people in retail excited. It’s the 2-D bar code that looks like a checkerboard and can hold 2,000 characters of information,” Murrah said.
She explained that today, for example, if a manufacturer is shipping cartons to a retail store, someone opens the cartons manually and checks contents, or scans the bar code on the outside of the carton and sends its information electronically to a computer and then this information has to be matched up with the EDI records.
“With the new 2-D bar coding, you can print all the contents of the box in the bar code, so no matter where you find the carton, even if it fell off a truck and you didn’t have access to EDI, you could get all the information you needed about it. We call this a portable data file,” Murrah said.
“We actually introduced 2-D bar coding technology four years ago, but a lot of retailers are still looking at how they will apply it to their operations,” Murrah added. Traxler agreed that the future was in 2-D bar coding. “I see a 2-D bar code coming into play, and it will enable all the information now sent over EDI to go on the merchandise label,” he said.
Traxler explained, “The 2-D bar code is like a matrix, as opposed to a series of bars. You have a 1-inch-square area of coded information with several thousand characters within that limited space. So instead of just having a number like the UPC, which you have to go to another database to get the information on, all the information will be encoded on the 2-D bar code.”
Traxler added, “Looking at a five-to-10-year time frame, we’ll begin to see other technology taking the place of bar coding — maybe radio frequency tags.”
He explained, “Passive RF tags work by receiving radio energy from another source. Once the tag is energized, it gets enough power to send a signal back that’s good enough to read.”
Traxler said today this technology is too expensive to be used, but in the long run, cost will come down. “We are involved in RF research, but not currently developing this sort of thing at this point.”
He added, “Our Metanetics Division has developed a 2-D bar code, and it can be read with today’s bar-code scanners. It just came on the market this fall and was just approved by the Automatic ID Manufacturers (AIM), the standard makers for auto ID technology.”