Despite the increasing number of roll-outs of RFID item-level tagging by retail giants such as Walmart, JCPenney, Marks & Spencer and supply chain giant Li & Fung, the price of RFID inlays (the electronic component that comprises of an antenna made of copper, silver or aluminium along with a silicon chip attached to a synthetic backing) has not budged.

UHF Gen 2 RFID smart tags (the industry standard) cost anywhere between US$0.096 and US$0.26 cents, according to supplier network RFID.net.

Although prices for the technology are remaining largely static, a proliferation of different inlay shapes and sizes suitable for apparel tagging however, has been appearing on the market.

From the long skinny rectangular shape of US-based Alien Technology's 'Squiglette', measuring 70mm by 9.5mm, to Lab ID's 'fashion inlays', measuring 50mm by 30mm and boasting "high orientation sensitivity", most instances of this labelling technology are designed to be included in semi-permanent or temporary garment labels or hang tags, with varying characteristics.

Japan-based Fujitsu's ultra-hardy WT-A511/A611 enhanced UHF washable tag, for example, has been designed with laundry services in mind; while in January 2012, US-based Avery Dennison RFID announced the launch of its AD-110m5 inlay, measuring just 23mm by 5mm; no bigger than a paperclip and insensitive to liquids.

Incorporating RFID into labels
Standard ultra high-frequency (UHF) RFID chips feature in the TexTrace woven fashion labels so that "the tag can be read with any standard hardware and software," according to Sybille Korrodi, the company's head of marketing.

However, one of the challenges for the fashion industry is to incorporate RFID into labels without making them bulky, stiff and uncomfortable to wear - which can be a problem with sewn-in textile tags into which the inlay is laminated or applied to the label by thermo-transfer. Many are also unable to withstand the washing and other processes that garments undergo.

TexTrace has tackled this by integrating the technology into the label itself, so that from the front "it is impossible to tell there is RFID in it," Korrodi explains, adding: "What we're offering is really the individual brand label with the technology inside, without any compromise on look and feel.

"Size-wise, you don't want to have a huge transponder inside the garment, as you would have to cut it out - and of course you don't want to cut the brand label out as that gives the garment or accessory its value. If you want to do brand protection you have to do it inside the brand label because that's where it happens."

The RFID label collection from global Hong Kong-based label supplier SML includes encapsulated woven labels, paper, leather and plastics.

Business development manager Terry Kemp says the majority of labels the company sells are paper and self-adhesives for hangtags (around 70-80%), followed by woven labels - although speciality tags like rubberised plastic can also be produced.

"We are basically providing RFID labels that look like labels did before - the only difference is that they have the inlay inside," he says.

"Inlays in their raw form are really quite flimsy and we can protect them using new glues to sandwich them between paper or fabric to withstand humidity and washing, depending on what the retailer wants. Some want them to be cut off at the point of sale, others need to withstand a couple of washes."

Software solutions
At the same time, software solutions - like the tags themselves - are designed to be customised to suit individual use cases.

Retail solutions such as Hong Kong company Megasoft's RiiT, for example, integrates RFID into various store functions such as smart mirrors that make product suggestions to customers. And cloud computing for the whole supply chain such as SML's new ViziT system is designed to make RFID integration seamless from the factory to the store.

American RFID company ODIN has developed a RFID tracking solution that interacts with social media.

Going into the future, customisation, scalability and flexibility are likely to lead product development as smaller business units are increasingly obliged to integrate with the RFID requirements dictated by larger retailers.

Giovanni Codegoni, sales manager at ID Lab, a supplier of RFID inlays to many of Italy's top-name luxury and sportswear brands, says Italy has experienced impressive growth this year - with RFID tag numbers doubling.

And while Kemp guesses that the greatest number of tags have most likely been deployed in the US thus far, he says Europe potentially has the greatest number of individual business users.

"In the future I think we'll see most garments you buy with an RFID tag that will be put on in the factory, because then you will be getting the full benefits: full supply chain visibility, anti-counterfeiting and stocktaking that is even more efficient," he says.

Kemp adds, however, that "even though tag prices are coming down, there'll never be anything as cheap as a barcode. It will be madness to put an RFID tag on low-priced garments like socks for instance or items say under a pound [GBP1]."

Scenarios of the future
With this, the rise of RFID has not, so far had much of an impact on the barcode whatsoever. If anything, the barcode is proving it is still an excellent solution and capable of even more functionality.

Scenarios of the future are shaping up to incorporate RFID, barcodes and data management software under the one system.

The QR (Quick Response) Code, originally developed for the automotive industry, is a two dimensional matrix that can replace a traditional linear barcode but with a greater capacity for data. Although it has been around since the late 1990s, it has only recently become a common sight on hangtags and in retail environments.

As a communication device, the QR code has many advantages: it is cheap, open-source and it can be generated and printed instantly. By using a smart phone, a customer can connect to mobile content but it can also be used by brands to push promotions, coupons or consumer suggestions, with the advantage (unlike RFID) that it is the consumer controlling the interaction.

CEO of mobile barcode developer NeoMedia Technologies, Laura Marriott, says that although recent years have seen many "shiny" technologies that might have an application in the future, her advice to companies is "to pick something ubiquitous. You cannot service more than a small percent of your target with augmented reality."

Marriott adds that the key to using technology such as mobile barcodes is to use it wisely and make the interaction meaningful and functional.

Overall, smart phone penetration shows no sign of slowing and is likely be an important factor in the future of retail labelling as mobile barcodes develop.

Nielsen's 2011 State of the Media social media report shows that 44% of US mobile phone users own a smart phone - a figure that jumps to over 60% in the 25-34 age range. In the Asia-Pacific region likewise, 44% of users own a smart phone and 26% of users are intent on purchasing one.

Click on the links below to read other chapters in the management briefing:

just-style management briefing: Apparel labels become more high-tech

just-style management briefing: Retailers hail benefits of new label technologies

just-style management briefing: Global labelling legislation a challenge