RFID and EAS: Two Technologies Can Live Together

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I can remember starting my career in retail product protection thirty years ago and hearing about a future technology that would allow a retailer to view their inventory levels in real-time throughout the entire supply chain while securing it in the stores prior to sale.

At the time, it was thought this mythical creature called RFID resided deep in the jungle where few dared to venture. For many years, RFID seemed an imaginary creature, impossible to capture, and many times, even discussing it would cause your head to spin. It is my hope to take the journey with you, deep into the jungle to learn more about RFID and realize that it is now out in the open and available to all.

Although retailers have been questioning the viability of RFID as an alternative to more established electronic article surveillance (EAS) technologies for the past 20-plus years, the current landscape of retail security shows an increase in the trend of integrating RFID with EAS systems. RFID has come a long way to fit in the retail environment and even though it offers much broader functionalities beyond pure loss prevention, EAS remains the preferred solution to deter shoplifting.

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In this article we will explore together the functionalities of each technology, their strengths, weaknesses, historical development, and the considerations involved in offering a hybrid approach.

RFID uses radio waves to track and identify tags and labels that contain information stored electronically which can be read from a distance of several feet. These tags are comprised of both a microchip, which contains the information, along with an antenna to allow communication with the reader. Currently, RFID is used in various applications including, but not limited to, asset tracking, contactless payments, inventory management, and supply chain transparency.

The RFID concept dates to World War II when the Allies used this technology to differentiate between friendly and enemy aircraft. It became commercially viable with the advancement of microelectronics in the ’70s and ’80s during the push for smaller, better, faster, and cheaper.

EAS focuses on deterring shoplifting through the use of hard tags or labels that are applied to items, triggering an alarm when unauthorized removal attempts occur at the store entrance or exit or when an item is tampered with.

EAS can be traced back to the 1960s and is credited to Arthur Minasy, who sought to fight shoplifting in his family’s Ohio store. Since then, EAS has emerged as a cornerstone in retail loss prevention with many studies supporting its simple yet effective success in reducing theft.

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There are two main varieties of EAS. Acousto magnetic (AM) utilizes magnetic and acoustic (sound) energy to communicate between the specially designed tags or labels and the systems. The sound waves are disrupted when a tag or label passes through the field, causing the system to alarm. Although this is the more expensive of the two, it provides superior performance in environments with metal and liquid items—both of which can be troublesome to alternative technologies. AM also experiences greater success when dealing with “body de-tuning” or shielding of tags or labels.

Radio frequency (RF) uses radio waves for the tags or labels to communicate with the systems. Like RFID, RF has trouble in environments with metal and liquid items. Even with its limitations, RF is a viable alternative for those looking for a more economical solution that uses a flat label and is easier to install.

Both AM and RF technologies are wonderful tools to help control shrink. Deciding between the two can be driven by many factors such as the products being protected, budget constraints, and additionally, the retail environment. It is important to consider the differences in order to select the best option for your specific loss prevention needs.

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I often get asked if RFID can be used purely as EAS. Although RFID was not specifically designed for EAS, it can be adapted to be used as such. However, before committing to this technology there are some limitations to consider. The cost to implement an RFID system for EAS is higher than a traditional solution using RF or AM. RFID does struggle in a high-metal environment and the tags or labels are body de-tunable, unlike AM.

Despite these challenges, using RFID for EAS is still attractive. The technology can lead to an increase in customer service and tracking as it offers enhanced security features, such as improved inventory visibility and the ability to track the movement of individual items throughout the store.

In a perfect world you could implement a “hybrid” solution using AM and RFID. This would leverage the strengths of both technologies by providing the advanced inventory management capabilities of RFID combined with the enhanced security features of AM. This offers retailers a powerful tool to enhance both operational and security efficiency.

This approach facilitates a smoother transition for those looking to upgrade their systems over time without having to overhaul their entire infrastructure at once. However, the cost of upgrading tags and potentially replacing cash wrap technologies can be prohibitive for some.

In conclusion, we covered the origins of RFID and EAS, we familiarized ourselves with the different technologies that are prevalent in today’s retail environment, and finally, we delved into using RFID as a hybrid solution along with AM or RF as well as the option of having it supplant them completely.

The relationship between RFID and EAS technologies is complex yet symbiotic. As retailers strive to enhance security and improve inventory management in this ever‑changing environment, the integration of these technologies presents a promising avenue. The hybrid solution, despite its challenges, stands as a testament to the industry’s innovation, offering a glimpse into the future of retail operations where efficiency, transparency, and security go hand‑in-hand considering that RFID is already EAS, with some limitations.

Dave Sandoval

Dave Sandoval is president and founder of Industrial Security Solutions with thirty years of experience in securing the profits ofall size retailers. Dave uses that expertise to create cutting edge custom solutions for product protection across all sectors. Dave earned an MBA at Pepperdine University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Economics from CSULB. He can be reached at dave@isscorpus.com.

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