Thirty years ago, a Marsh's supermarket in Ohio secured a place in history when it scanned and sold the first bar-coded item: a 10-stick pack of Wrigley's gum. On April 30, a distribution center in Dallas reserved its own place in the history books when it received the first cases and pallets identified via RFID tags carrying Electronic Product Codes (EPCs). The delivery of those cases, which contained items ranging from paper towels to cat food, was part of a test Wal-Mart is conducting with eight suppliers as it prepares for a large-scale RFID rollout in January 2005. (Wal-Mart announced in June 2003 that it would require its top 100 suppliers to begin shipping RFIDtagged pallets and cases by that date.)
Reports indicate that as spectacles go, the event fell short. "It's rather unremarkable to look at; a guy wheels a pallet through an array of readers and lights go on," says Jack Grasso, a spokesman for EPCglobal, who was present at the Wal-Mart DC to witness the arrival of the RFID-tagged products. "But if you know what's actually going on, it's extremely important because this event is leading the way to the implementation of RFID. It's the first tangible usage in a real-world application."
Just under two dozen of the more than 100,000 products carried in a typical Wal-Mart store are involved in the ongoing trials, which follow a well-orchestrated sequence of steps. After tagged pallets and cases arrive at Wal-Mart's DC in Dallas, readers at the dock doors automatically scan the tags, sending the data to an application that alerts both the retailer's operations and merchandising teams and suppliers that the specific shipment has arrived. Workers then remove the cases from the pallets for processing before they're trucked to the seven Dallas-area participating stores. When tagged cases arrive at the stores, the tags are read once again, this time to confirm the shipment's arrival.
Eight suppliers took part in the launch: Gillette, Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett-Packard, Kimberly-Clark, Kraft Foods, Nestle Purina PetCare Co., Procter & Gamble and Unilever. "We're grateful to these companies for their commitment to improving the supply chain process," Linda Dillman, Wal-Mart's chief information officer, said in a statement. "It isn't easy being a pioneer. But that's how progress is made and these eight companies are at the forefront of revolutionizing the way we do business."