This retailer is using RFID tags to make in-person clothes shopping less frustrating

Does anyone really like in-person clothes shopping anymore? Fashion brand River Island is using a range of digital solutions to help make it less of a slog.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor on
Reviewed by Min Shin
River Island storefront
River Island

Buying clothes in person can be a frustrating experience. You go to the fitting room, try on the item, and find you've picked the wrong size. You then have to get dressed, go back onto the shop floor, get the right-sized item, and go through the whole process again in the fitting room.

Finally, you find the right item in the right size -- but now you have to wait in a long line to make your purchase. What you thought was going to be a quick and easy procedure has turned into a bit of a slog.

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But, what if there was a retailer who made the whole process of buying clothes in person -- from trying on clothes, to buying items, and even securing more stylish items in the future -- a much more seamless experience? 

That's the aim of high street fashion retailer River Island, whose CIO Adam Warne has implemented a range of digital solutions -- incorporating radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, sensors, video screens, and data analytics -- to help clothes buyers overcome the challenges they encounter.

"If you've ever been in a fitting room and something doesn't fit right, it can be frustrating," he says. "The whole initiative started with, 'How we are going to improve life for the customer?'"

River Island -- which has 250 stores in the U.K. and a range of franchises, partners, and concessions in locations around the globe, including North America, Europe, and the Middle East -- uses RFID tags to give each product a unique reference number that can be recognized in smart fitting rooms, which include screens to help customers as they shop.

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"Because we're RFID-tagged, you can take four or five items into a fitting room, you hang them on the hook, and a screen pops up and it tells you exactly what you've taken into the fitting room," says Warne.

"And then if you want a different size, you can press the screen and somebody will bring you a different size. So, it's effectively a customer-enhancing experience that saves some hassle."

River Island scan

Tagged items are automatically scanned in the digital fitting rooms.

River Island

Once items are scanned, customers gain access to the same product information they'd get online, such as information on size, color, and material.

The data-led initiative is powered by Snowflake's Retail Data Cloud, which allows retailers like River Island to tie together a variety of data sources into a single repository, supporting enterprise-wide efforts to turn information into insight.

As well as reducing some of the hassles of in-person shopping, River Island also gleans crucial performance insights from RFID tagging, such as whether a customer had to change an item to get a different size or if a product was tried on but not purchased.

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Warne says the result is e-commerce-like conversion rates in brick-and-mortar stores, which is the kind of information that few retailers have at their disposal. 

"That gives faster insight back to the product team for things that people are trying on and not buying or for people trying something on and having a different size -- maybe we've got something wrong with the fit?" he says.

"Maybe we need to re-label the product to say it's a different size than it actually is because we got the sizing wrong. Or maybe people are trying it on and nobody's buying it, so maybe we need to replace it with something else in the store."

Interestingly, Warne says the production of this detailed data about sales and styles was an "afterthought". 

But while the initiative was established to boost customer experiences, the combination of RFID tagging and Snowflake's cloud-based platform is now powering data-led action across the business.

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"The value that we get from having that data is really, really powerful," he says. "And what it's slowly doing is that it's making us think about how we can leverage data for different ways at the point that we're coming up with ideas." 


Warne: "When you look at the benefit that tagging gives us in terms of visibility, it's incredible."

River Island

Warne says the e-commerce-style analysis of in-store sales is helping to influence product investment decisions and even shop layout design.

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He estimates about 99.8% of products at River Island are now RFID-tagged, with the only big exception being liquids in the company's beauty range (he says tags don't work well with liquids).

The smart fitting rooms are being used in about 20 stores and Warne describes the results as "phenomenal so far".

"The cost of RFID-tagging those items is minimal," he says. "But when you look at the benefit that tagging gives us in terms of visibility, it's incredible. Stock checking in a store now takes hours, not days. You just walk around with a scanner and it tells you everything that's there."

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The RFID tags are also used to power self-checkout, so customers can get in and out of the store much quicker.

When they're ready to buy, shoppers drop their items into a "smart bin", which automatically scans the RFID tags and produces a bill.

Smart till at River Island

The tills in store are smart, too.

River Island

"You just put everything in the bin, the items pop up on a screen, you pay, and you walk out," says Warne. "There's no de-tagging and there's no complexity. It's very straightforward." 

River Island's commitment to technology isn't unusual. Gartner says global IT spending in the retail industry will grow by 6.6% in 2023 to reach $193.4 billion. The analyst expects spending to grow 7.3% annually to reach $240.7 billion by 2026.

Other big-name brands have also investigated the potential for using RFID tagging and other emerging technologies to power smarter consumer experiences, including Walmart and Nike.

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Where River Island's approach is unusual is the scale of its commitment to emerging technology and its desire to create a joined-up approach to digital transformation that produces benefits for customers and the company's bottom line, says Warne.

"Every few months, I'll go for a wander down Oxford Street in London because that's where a lot of people have their flagship stores. The reality is that, when I go for those retail experience visits, I don't really see a lot that's different in the high street," he says. 

"I think there's a lot of talk about changing the experience in retail and not very much action. Some of the things that we are doing at River Island are about delivering something that is differentiated."

Warne says these data-led efforts will continue with the aim of using all kinds of technology -- from RFID tagging to analytics and artificial intelligence -- to make the in-store shopping experience less frustrating and much more enjoyable.

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"We've always been a business that's made fashion affordable for a lot of customers," he says. "Trends change very quickly and we need to make sure that we are still creating the right fashions and the best experiences for our customers."

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