Lauren Scott California: At the Seams of RFID

By Mel Duvall Print this article Print

Designer Lauren Scott is adding radio frequency tags to her children's clothes so parents can keep track of their kids—but not all customers think that's a good idea.

You have to be forward-thinking to survive and thrive in the fashion business. Designs being drawn up on sketch pads today probably won't appear on racks in stores until the fall of 2007.

Predicting trends and the fluctuations of consumer tastes so far in advance is an inherent risk faced by clothing designers. Add to the mix a new and somewhat controversial technology, radio frequency identification (RFID), and gauging consumer sentiment becomes that much more challenging.

For Lauren Scott, chief executive officer of designer house Lauren Scott California, the walk down the runway toward implementing RFID technology in her clothing lines has been fraught with technological and public relations land mines. In many ways, this echoes the challenges other CEOs face or will face as they embark on their own RFID initiatives. Scott has had to wrestle with everything from ensuring that the tags are durable enough to make it from manufacturing lines to store shelves, to mollifying the concerns of privacy activists.

RFID tags are essentially small silicon chips equipped with antennas that enable them to receive and respond to queries from an RFID transceiver or reader. When placed on boxes or pallets, the tags allow companies to track the shipment of goods from the manufacturing plant to the distribution center and on to the final destination, with little need for human input. On the individual product level, the technology offers companies the ability to tell exactly when a product leaves a store so inventory can be automatically restocked, and to potentially learn more about the consumers buying those products.

Lauren Scott's children's clothing equipped with RFID tags is set to begin appearing at major retailers this spring, but Scott's go-to-market plan bears little resemblance to the strategy she envisioned some 18 months ago.

"It's been an interesting learning experience—that's putting it mildly," Scott laughs. "It certainly would have been easier to wait until the technology was more advanced, but as a designer, that's not the mentality of the beast.

"If you don't think far into the future, you end up being the knock-off instead of the trendsetter."

Scott first began thinking about implementing RFID technology with her clothing lines in late 2004 to prepare for new mandates from key customers like Wal-Mart. At the time, Wal-Mart had announced a sweeping initiative to require RFID tags on shipments at the case or pallet level and, eventually, at the individual item level. Because Scott was already working on her spring 2006 collection, she figured it was prudent to begin looking at what was required to implement RFID.

Beyond the supply chain benefits of being able to track shipments coming and going into distribution centers and stores, Scott was attracted by the social benefits the technology might afford. Scott has been in the kids' clothing design business for 17 years—she started designing girls' clothing when her daughter was born—and understands the fears and concerns of parents.

An RFID tag sewn into a child's clothing could carry vital medical information about that child in the case of an accident or emergency, particularly when a parent is not available. The RFID tag could also help prevent child abductions. By placing RFID readers at various locations in a house, or by combining the readers with built-in alarm systems, the tag could trigger an alarm if a child breached the perimeters of a house.

"There are obvious business benefits associated with the tags," Scott adds. "But I was really attracted to all the other possibilities. This has the potential to save the life of a child."

Scott, whose company is based in San Diego, sells her clothing under the Lauren Scott Confidential brand as well as labels like Bellizimo and Teez Me; these lines account for about $2 million in revenue per year. However, the majority of her business comes from clothing sold under the private labels of major retailers. Her key target is girls, age 4 to 8.

When asked to describe her lines, Scott says think California, but without the exposed belly button. "Kids at that age often want to emulate their pop idols, but their parents don't want that look," she explains. "I try to bridge the gap between the budding fashionistas and the little princesses."

Scott spent six months evaluating RFID tags and technologies from various vendors, looking for the right combination of durability, pliability and cost. If the tags were to be sewn into clothing, they not only had to be flexible, they also had to be able to withstand the wear and tear of playtime, the heat of an iron, and the punishment of the washing machine or dry cleaner. "We put [the tags] through the ringer—sent them to the dry cleaner, put them through multiple wash cycles and had kids wear them in all kinds of situations because you really have to know how they're going to hold up," she says.

Scott settled on a tag that is made with Mylar, a strong, waterproof and heat-resistant polyester film, at a cost of about 30 cents each. That's higher than the roughly 13-cent cost of mass produced tags offered by Alien Technology and other vendors, but Scott says it was within her price range.

Scott also had to experiment with various manufacturing techniques to install the tags. Initially she tried sewing the tags in the seams of clothing, particularly down the side of a pant leg. However, in testing she found that certain materials, such as denim and corduroy, diminished the tags' readability. Through trial and error, she discovered that the seam along the shoulder of a garment is the easiest and most effective location. It lies flat and generally has the space needed to incorporate a tag.

In July 2005, Scott announced a partnership with SmartWear Technologies, also based in San Diego, to provide its proprietary RFID tags and reader systems to protect children in their homes. Two options would activate the tags:

"Parents could log on to a Web site and enter medical or personal information about their child into an emergency response database maintained by SmartWear. The RFID tag sewn into the child's clothing would not store personal information, just a number that could be used to access the child's information in the database. The database itself would only be available to police or medical personnel via secure access.

" Through partnerships with alarm systems companies, SmartWear also planned to offer parents RFID readers for their homes to prevent child abductions or a child from wandering away. The cost: about $500.

Scott initially announced that the first line of clothing equipped with RFID tags—pajamas and nightgowns—would be available in stores in the spring of 2006. However, the announcement attracted the attention of privacy advocates who feared the tags could be used by retailers and predators alike to track the movements of children.

Technology executives who have struggled with getting RFID tags to work on a standard assembly line might find it amusing to envision how someone could use a tag to track the movements of a child throughout a store or neighborhood, but privacy concerns have caused retailers to rethink their RFID strategies. At an RFID conference in Dallas in February, Jim Jackson, director of vendor relationship management for clothing manufacturer VF Corp., said that while privacy concerns need to be considered, they can be overblown. "The myth that there are going to be satellites in space tracking my every movement—well, we're still trying to get an antenna that's four feet away from a carton to read the thing," he said during a panel discussion on the myths and realities of RFID.

Still, privacy advocacy groups like Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) have labeled RFID tags as "spychips" and are pressuring retailers to curtail their implementation.

As a result of growing controversy surrounding the technology, several of Scott's major customers asked that the tags not be sewn directly into the clothing. Her options: abandon the initiative or come up with another strategy.

Working again with SmartWear, she developed three concepts: An RFID tag sewn into the clothing label, which could be snipped off if a parent chooses; an iron-on tag; and a "hang tag," similar to the extra button offered with some clothing, that could be sewn onto a child's clothing. Scott works with each retailer to decide which option is preferred.

Bob Reed, president of SmartWear, says Scott isn't alone in trying to navigate the RFID privacy minefield. He says the company is working with several other clothing manufacturers, all of which have encountered similar difficulties.

Even as the tags begin appearing in stores, Reed admits much of the infrastructure required to leverage the tags—such as RFID-equipped home alarm systems, and RFID readers at hospital emergency wards—is yet to be put in place.

This article was originally published on 2006-04-06
Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.

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