RFID Ambush
By Laura Dawson
Vox Box (Special BEA Edition), 2005

Talk to anybody in the book industry about RFID and you either get blank looks or dismissive ones.

Those who do know about it regard the use of it in the book supply chain as being rather distant - and given all the other issues immediately at hand (ISBN-13, DOI, ONIX), RFID seems a relatively low priority. Meaning: no money's going to be spent on it. Meaning: no development's being assigned to it. Meaning: no resources are being gathered for it.

And in most cases when it comes to practically applying standards to commerce,
that's a pretty fair assessment - don't go throwing money at problems that
aren't yours yet. Wait and see how things play out in other industries first.

Unfortunately, there's Wal-Mart. Which, as the largest retailer in the U.S. (some 20 million shoppers per day, according to a recent NY Times article),
houses the products of many industries under its roof simultaneously. Including books.
And where Wal-Mart goes, Target goes. And where Target goes, Costco goes.

Wal-Mart is pioneering the use of RFID on a rather accelerated schedule. Radio Frequency Identification is a system of electronic tags placed on pallets or individual merchandise for tracking purposes. The tags contain information about the products - their whereabouts in the warehouse, their prices, their dimensions, and all the vital statistics necessary for selling or keeping track of them.

The technology is immature at the moment - due largely to problems sending and receiving radio transmissions through liquids and metals (such as cans of Coke) -
and at 20-30 cents a tag, the RFID initiative is a pricey one for any company.

Wal-Mart, being the 800-pound gorilla, has demanded that its top 100 suppliers be RFID-compliant by 2005. It's piloting a program with Sun Microsystems in a few of
its warehouses. While there is some question as to whether either Wal-Mart or its targeted suppliers will in fact be ready by 2005, there's no question whatsoever that Wal-Mart expects to run RFID-enabled warehouses and stores...very shortly. Or else.

Target is following suit. In late February of this year, it announced that it expected its largest suppliers to be RFID-ready by 2005 as well. Costco is doing internal testing. According to a report in RetailWire dated March 1st,
"While all the answers may not yet be known, it is clear the RFID train has left the station. As Ron Margulis, managing director of RAM Communications says, "When the combined retail strength of Wal-Mart, Target, Costco and Home Depot is supporting the initiative, it will be hard to stop it."

So...what does this have to do with bookselling?

In fact, only 37% of book sales occur in actual bookstores. And discount retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco make up about 14% of the bookselling market. That's more than online sales, which come in at 8%.

And yes, these mammoth stores are not offering the wide variety of stock that traditional booksellers do. They pile up bestsellers "like toothpaste", says Steve Riggio. They trade in the sure sale.

However, according to The Times, outlets like Wal-Mart, Costco and Target are responsible for up to 50% of any given bestseller's performance.

Suddenly the RFID issue doesn't look so distant to the book supply chain anymore...

But what to do about it?

While Random House is probably not going to be one of the top 100 suppliers that Wal-Mart's doing testing with, it's fairly safe to say that shortly after those tests are over and Wal-Mart has verified requirements, Random House will be looking down the RFID gun barrel. As will Scholastic. As will HarperCollins. As will Simon & Schuster. And if internal preparations aren't made, these publishers and many others will be caught unable to implement the technology that will sell their titles. The publisher who is RFID-ready by the time Wal-Mart and Costco are, is the publisher who will have the real bestsellers.

What's a publisher to do? Obviously reading up on RFID is a first step. A Google News alert is quite useful for a steady stream of information on the subject.
A good background on the technology can be found at the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility (AIM).
The RFID Journal is a thorough round-up of current issues in implementation.

Beyond simply reading, there is a segment of BISAC that is devoted to emerging technologies. Delegating someone within your organization to attend these meetings will ensure that whatever solutions are developed will include your own input, will address your specific concerns.

Should more be required, there are numerous technology providers who can assist in launching an RFID program. The first step, however, is educating your organization as to the issues surrounding RFID, and developing an awareness of its strengths and shortcomings. As Wal-Mart goes, so goes the nation. Be ready.

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