Auchan Group had a major problem in 2011; the French supermarket company’s reusable plastic containers were often ending up lost or stolen. Why was this a big deal?

Auchan has 1.8 million plastic reusable containers. That’s not a typo. The company, as of 2011, was the 12th largest food retailer in the world with about 1,300 stores. Food was being shipped in those 1.8 million containers to distribution centers and stores throughout France and Spain. However, along the way, containers were getting lost or stolen, causing a huge issue for Auchan, because they were difficult to track and trace once missing.

The reusable containers were new and invaluable. They protected the fruits and vegetables and other food better than the cardboard and wooden crates and pallets previously being used. The plastic containers were also less bulky than the cardboard and wooden containers, which meant that Auchan didn’t have to use as much storage space as it used to.

In addition, the reusable plastic containers were used to display food in stores for people to purchase. Auchan executives believed that this display would provide an “attractive-looking presentation” and help them sell food. Needless to say, the plastic containers were key to Auchan’s sales and distribution model.

Finding a way to effectively track these reusable containers proved critical.

The company had problems not only with finding lost or stolen containers, but they often didn’t know whether the containers were sanitized and washed after each use. This process was necessary to ensure that the food Auchan sold was safe for customers and in compliance with the European Union safety regulations.

Fortunately, a tracking solution was the key to solving Auchan’s predicament. The company implemented a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system that allowed radio transmitter-receivers, called readers, to read electronically-stored information off of RFID tags located on each plastic container. This enabled employees to collect information about each container and track it through the distribution process, even when they could not see them.

The RFID system has enabled Auchan to keep track of about 98 percent of its 1.8 million plastic reusable containers. “The (RFID reader) portals can read up to 200 tags on plastic crates at a time as they pass by on a cart or forklift, at a speed of up to 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) per hour,” the RFID Journal article reports, “As containers filled with new produce are unloaded from trucks, the portals read the tags.”

RFID technology increases visibility to help companies find reusable containers in a warehouse, across buildings and track whether deliveries are on time, reducing the risk of loss or theft. The tracking technology has been invaluable for other companies besides Auchan, including:

* Monroe Americana: The company “typically” brings 90 empty reusable containers to its warehouse every time it delivers pharmaceuticals. As Argentina’s second largest pharmaceuticals wholesaler, it delivered pharmaceuticals to 5,000 pharmacies. Its 50 trucks made deliveries regularly. It was losing containers regularly — and had to spend $7 each to replace them — until it implemented an RFID system, according to the RFID Journal article “Monroe Americana Tracks Reusable Containers.”

* Daher Aerospace: The British company uses RFID technology to track the location of its reusable containers and whether they need to be cleaned and serviced, according to the RFID Journal article “Daher Aerospace Expands RFID Usage Throughout Supply Chain.”