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What Ralph Lauren’s Massive Digital Deployment Means for its Global Supply Chain

In a retail environment consistently plagued by intellectual property theft and counterfeiting concerns, luxury brands are finally hitting back with technological solutions of their own.

On Friday, Ralph Lauren Co. launched its Digital Product Identities (IDs) program to help consumers determine the authenticity of their purchases. Each Ralph Lauren product label is emblazoned with a unique identification code that’s scannable with a smartphone. In addition to being able to verify a product’s legitimacy, shoppers are given access to product details and styling tips and recommendations.

The New York-based fashion empire claims it’s the first in apparel to deploy the digital ID technology “at this scale and in unprecedented ways.”

The IDs also provide the brand with much-needed insight into its own complex supply chain, tracking each product from its point of manufacture throughout its retail journey. That visibility helps drive efficiency around orders and inventory, Ralph Lauren Co. said in a statement.

The company partnered with Evrythng, a connected Internet of Things (IoT) platform, along with technology partner Avery Dennison, on the mass-scale digitization project. Evrythng’s cloud software platform manages the digital identity of consumer products through traceable data, while Avery Dennison provides the label and the digitally serialized QR code printing used to physically brand each product during the production process.

Evrythng and Avery Dennison have been cooperating for years and in 2016, rolled out the world’s largest IoT initiative, launching the Janela Smart Products Platform, which allows apparel and footwear products to be “born” with a digital identity.

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Currently, IDs are being rolled out in all new Polo Ralph Lauren products, and some products have already hit the shelves in select retail stores and on the brand’s website. The brand said that as it scales the new program, it will offer new consumer features designed to deepen ties with its audience.

“The launch of Digital Product IDs demonstrates how we continue to use technology to deliver more for our consumers and ensure the integrity of our products throughout their lifecycle,” David Lauren, chief innovation officer for Ralph Lauren Co., said. “The application of this technology means every Polo product will be ‘born-digital,’ which represents a new milestone in data intelligence innovation in our sector.”

Ralph Lauren, Avery Dennison and Evrythng attack product authentication and supply chain chaos by giving millions of RL items digital IDs.

Brand supply chains have become dazzlingly complex, often involving multiple tiers of partnerships for both the sourcing of materials and the manufacturing of products. Meanwhile, consumers are demonstrating a newfound interest in product origins and skepticism about how and where their potential purchases are made.

Digital technologies have the potential to allay consumer concerns, as well as providing critical and yet unprecedented transparency for brands trying streamline their own operations. According to a new report published by the World Economic Forum, the new IDs program has given the high-end apparel firm valuable access to the status of each unique item created through its “hundreds of trusted manufacturing contributors, systems and processes” for the first time in the brand’s history.

“In the apparel industry, it’s been traditionally difficult to know what’s happening in a factory that’s being operated on the other side of the world,” Evrythng co-founder and CEO Niall Murphy said. “Now, one actually has real-time visibility and can see how many products are being produced and at what rate.

“[Brands] can see when orders are being finished, or when they’re not being finished on time. There’s a wealth of operational intelligence that one is able to access at all times,” he said.

This intelligence allows the brand to detect and rectify issues at the manufacturing level as they arise, and equally importantly, it helps ensure brand integrity. “Consumer requirements for transparency are only accelerating, and the need for the industry to have more agility in its ability to control its supply chain is becoming a major competitive factor,” Murphy said.

Many of the issues the retail industry has faced have arisen because of a lack of visibility and up-to-the-minute data intelligence, he said, both when it comes to operations and “integrity control.” Now that it’s possible to rapidly gather the information, brands can more effectively attack those challenges.

While bad actors will always be plotting counterattacks against even the latest and best technology, Murphy believes that digitization is still the best path forward—and will soon become table stakes for brands across the industry.

“This battle is not a new one; it’s a continuous moving game,” he said. “This kind of technology is much harder to attack because it’s not just about a new type of code that’s hard to replicate, it’s about tracking data that moves across many different organizations and steps in the supply chain.”