International rugby icon Serge Blanco ended his career in 1992, the same year the eponymous brand was formed in Toulouse, France. Drawing its inspiration from the style of Biarritz Olympique number 15, one of the greatest rugby players of all times, Serge Blanco the brand represents the spirit of rugby as the quintessential gentlemen’s sport.
Although it began exclusively in men’s wear, today the chic luxury sportswear brand also outfits six-month-old babies and adults up to size 6XL through 400 retail outlets in France and approximately 20 stores in 15 other countries including Ireland, Dubai, Russia and Italy.
Designed in France and produced offshore, Serge Blanco moves more than one million items of apparel through the supply chain each year to its own retail stores and select department stores. As the business has grown, inevitable growing pains have followed suit.
Slow coming in and slow going out
Over the years, as Serge Blanco’s business continued to scale up — 2008 revenues totalled just over EU30 million ($39 million in today’s dollars) — the company’s distribution center began to feel the restrictions of processes and physical space that could not accommodate product flow in a timely and efficient manner. As they say, you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and this was readily apparent in the challenges the company was confronting, much of which, it determined, was attributable to its use of EAN barcodes, which could neither be processed quickly nor without frequent errors. Serge Blanco experienced frequent bottlenecks and was stymied by a “lack of process speed and lack of reliability, stock rotations were too long and time per article too high,” says Mathieu Pradier, the company’s vice president of operations.
At the store level, Serge Blanco faced discrepancies between the inventory that was actually on the sales floor and what was recorded in its IT system, which led to problems with product availability.
Realizing that its growth trajectory would be impeded by its current system, the company performed a series of strategic analyses that brought to the fore a real need to optimize its DC to keep pace with its expanding business. Among the multiple scenarios that Serge Blanco considered during this process, says Pradier, were expanding its site, creating a new building with new staff, expanding distribution and reception into additional countries and optimizing its product flows using various types of systems, including RFID.
After evaluating such options, the team concluded that RFID would best fit the bill, meeting company needs while also adapting easily to its current business processes. For example, the company was already using labelling systems similar to RFID from reception of incoming goods to delivery. Converting to RFID would simply entail the addition of an electronic chip that could be read from a distance. In short, says Pradier, RFID presented both the easiest option relative to blending in with its already established processes, and the simplest overall solution.
Entering the pilot stage
Having closely researched what some other clothing retailers were doing, Serge Blanco ultimately decided to implement the solution it saw in place at retailers Boboli and Throttleman — the TAGSYS RFID system. “We found the TAGSYS solutions to be the most complete, most mature and easiest to integrate with our existing processes,” says Pradier. The company deployed the solution in early 2009 with plans to expand it across its entire retail network by the end of last year.
The process was planned out to the last detail during the pre-analysis stage, allowing a global budget to be defined simultaneously: Serge Blanco established a development plan with TAGSYS project managers based on a functional analysis of its business processes, working environments and integration requirements with its existing computer system, and then developed a software interface to link the TAGSYS system with Serge Blanco’s.
After the functional analysis was completed, the company defined a final budget for a pilot project to span three seasons, enabling the company to identify real gains and spread the investment over time, says Pradier. During the eight-month deployment, the team defined and implemented a functional perimeter for the RFID solution in the DC, and also developed the software that acted as an interface between Serge Blanco’s system and TAGSYS’. It also installed the tunnel, reading units and other equipment.
The entire RFID infrastructure is integrated into the existing IT system through e-Connectware™, TAGSYS’ RFID administration tool, to seamlessly manage and monitor RFID devices and data.
“Because different verticals have unique requirements, the TAGSYS e-Connectware solution has been especially adapted to the fashion industry to enable the management of the data gathered through RFID stations to provide us with actionable data in real time,” says Pradier.
At the store level, the company uses UHF stations and e-Connectware software to automate store receiving, monitor merchandise in the back room, on store shelves and in fitting rooms — all in real time — while providing loss prevention protection, improved merchandise availability and increased customer satisfaction.
The results of the implementation, says Pradier, have been phenomenal. “We now have better insight into productivity,” he says, noting that the team has been able to confirm that all of the theoretical reading times and label reading performance values predicted were achieved in every respect during reception. For example, notes Pradier, “Previously, in a busy day of receiving goods, with 10 men we were able to receive 25,000 items, and with the new system we needed only two people and received 35,000 items.
“Our objective was to really optimize the distribution channel, and this has been achieved. We have reduced entry and exit times for goods by almost tenfold, which means that we are now ready for business growth of 40 percent to 50 percent. … RFID is not a passing fashion. It’s a real solution.”
Extending RFID to the stores
With its initial goal of optimizing its distribution channel realized, Serge Blanco has worked with TAGSYS to continue to develop RFID solutions that can be leveraged across multiple applications and support a variety of business processes, both in the supply chain and in the store. “Our successful deployment in our distribution center has led us to take RFID to our entire retail network in order to achieve complete item-level visibility,” says Pradier.
With TAGSYS UHF RFID tags applied to all of its products, inventory can be automatically accounted for within the store’s management software as it moves through UHF portals positioned at various checkpoints in the back room and on the retail floor.
“In the stores, we expect it will give us real-time information about our inventory, sales and shrink,” he says, noting that the company intends to use this information to improve its replenishment processes and inventory management, which he expects will lead to optimum merchandise availability levels, an enhanced customer shopping experience and, ultimately, increased sales.
“Fitting rooms have also been equipped with RFID stations, enabling our staff to accurately access the conversion rates of products that customers try on versus the ones they actually purchase,” says Pradier. Inventory counts also are taken regularly at the shelf level “to make sure that the right items are available to customers and not hidden away in the back room.
“High-tech solutions are [often] put aside — people always think they are just for show,” says Pradier. His experience with RFID has proven otherwise.
Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at email@example.com
RFID Solution at a glance
• Printable TAGSYS UHF RFID tags are affixed to existing apparel labels
• RFID printers powered by TAGSYS program and print data
• TAGSYS UHF RFID tunnels quickly and precisely control inbound and outbound merchandise
• TAGSYS HHU-400 portable UHF RFID readers perform rapid inventories
• TAGSYS SRU-400 fixed RFID stations prepare and verify orders
• TAGSYS e-Connectware™ RFID administration tool integrates the entire RFID infrastructure into Serge Blanco’s existing IT System
• TAGSYS UHF stations and e-Connectware software automate store receiving and monitor merchandise in the back room