High street retailer Woolworths (part of Kingfisher Plc) has teamed up with Logistics specialist Tibbett & Britten Group Plc to undertake trials of radio frequency identification (RFID) tagging at the garment level. The exercise, which forms part of a much wider project between the two companies, is being conducted at Tibbett & Britten's distribution centre in Castleton and Woolworths' store at Monks Cross, York.

RFID is an emerging technology being developed to enhance existing barcode identification systems. Like barcodes, RFID tags hold information about an asset or product, but have the advantages that the information on the tag can be changed or updated, several items can be read or written to simultaneously, and 'line-of-sight' communications are not required.

RFID tags can be read and written to at any stage of the distribution process in two ways: automatically while moving the products through the field of an antenna, or manually by using a hand-held terminal. In addition to traditional retail applications, RFID's speed and accuracy make it an essential enabler in areas such as warehouse automation and e-commerce fulfilment.

For the Woolworths trial, Tibbett & Britten staff are applying the 'intelligent tags' to individual garments at the depot. The tags are programmed with a unique identifier, item ID, item description, time, date and status information prior to despatch to the store.

The receipt and reconciliation process at the store then becomes completely automated. An antenna reads the tags as the garments arrive, and the system automatically updates the store's computerised stock control system, as well as the status of each tag. A visual display confirms receipt, and the need for manual counting is eliminated. A second antenna then records movements and updates the status of garments between the stockroom and the sales floor. Tags are removed at the checkout for subsequent reprogramming and reuse.

It is envisaged that eventually small, durable tags might even be built-in to selected merchandise or packaging, and tags could also contain electronic article surveillance (EAS) theft-deterrence systems.

Tibbett & Britten is currently working on similar trials with other major retailers, and is additionally investigating the use of intelligent tag-based systems for tracking assets such as vehicles, roll-cages, pallets and tote boxes. Mike Sweet, group planning director, says: "RFID tagging allows far greater control and removes the need for many of the traditional time-consuming 'pencil and paper' checking systems."

Geoff O'Neill, business project manager for Woolworths, adds: "Our vision is to achieve both visibility and traceability of stock at item level throughout the supply chain from supplier to store, by automatically capturing the data relating to all stock movements. These systems are great enablers for automation and efficient replenishment."