What happens with product information when a customer returns a product to the retail store or sends it into the reverse logistics supply chain of the online or face-to-face retail seller?

A manufacturer of a product — such as a laptop computer or a new coffee maker may have conducted their engineering analysis and later value analysis to make sure the laptop has been produced with the least expensive but reliable parts. But what about that information needed by the consumer on the product's use and safety?

At Amazon, for instance, if I order a coffee maker and really do not like it, or it just does not work because someone dropped it in shipping, what do I do? Amazon wants me to return it to them pronto. They will ship out a new coffee maker right away, no questions asked.

But how did the company select which product to send to the consumer? The serial number and model number is stamped into the body of the coffee maker. Somewhere on the packing box of the product is a barcode, radio frequency identification (RFID) tag or a quick response (QR) code.

One of these three information tools is somewhere, but which one is on your product or its packaging container? Which one did the manufacturer choose for the customer? Somewhere along the supply chain process of designing, manufacturing and marketing of the laptop or coffee maker, someone decided to package product information about how to return the product if you are not satisfied with its performance.

What are the decisions to be made on the return and disposal of those two products as part of the reverse logistics process? They could be repaired by some third party of the original manufacturer. The unwanted products could be returned to the purchase point, that online or face-to-face retail store. They could be recycled to the waste pile or landfill.

The products could be cannibalized for their usable parts that will go into a spare parts bin. Someone could harvest those parts for their raw materials and sell that copper, plastic or gold back into the supply chain, to be used for some new product to be manufactured.

Who makes that decision about which of these three methods — barcode, RFID tag or QR code will be used to provide information to the consumer, a field repair technician or a recycler? For field technicians, such information could create value by informing them about how to fix the broken laptop or the broken coffee maker.

Is it the manufacturer? That person is far upstream in a complex supply chain or supply network, compared to the distribution center or the final retail store shelf and store manager.

Let's consider that the manufacturer makes this decision of using bar codes, RFID tags or QR codes. After all, the manufacturer wants to keep making more products and more profits for shareholders, employees and vendors. The manufacturer has more detailed knowledge of the actual raw materials used in the production of the product and the tests of the limits of its normal or even abnormal use. The manufacturer would know the failure point for the product.


Why should the manufacturer choose the barcode? That is a unique marker for identification of the product. When the product is returned, the returns customer service worker scans the barcode to make sure the stock keeping unit (SKU) is indeed one the store carries and one that matches similar inventory on the shelf.

For product returns, is the barcode adequate to place it into the reverse logistic process of the retailer? The barcode can be cross-linked to another set of data fields in a database management system to provide disposal information for the product or its parts.

Today, the cloud concept links many different data sources, so all one might need is a key to unlock such data. A barcode within a content of a return categorization might be sufficient.

RFID tag

But what if the product had an RFID chip inside the shell of the laptop or coffee maker? Did the retailer "kill" the RFID data at the point of sale to make sure the customer could walk out of the store without all those theft alarms sounding? Does the return clerk scan for that RFID chip to see if it is still there?

The amount of information of the RFID tag could be a more detailed chain of custody of the product (as well as hazardous warnings) than is provided on a barcode. But the same worldwide connection of the product identification information for proper disposal can be cross-linked from other sources in today's cloud technology.

QR code

What about a QR code, which is similar to a barcode, just in two dimensions? We see such little squares of barcodes compacted into one barcode. It provides automatic links to cloud technology, which could be documents, video links or websites discussing the proper handling of the product for returns, recycling, or repair and sale to a third party.

Which information-sharing technology is best to place on a laptop, coffee maker or any product for sale, assuming that the manufacturer is the place where such information originates? Or does such information originate at the manufacturer? The decision to use barcode, RFID or QR code can come down to cost.

But today, the cost is measured in the pennies for each product. So better decision criteria might be based on what the customer wants. So what do you want on that broken laptop or coffee maker where the on-off switch does not work? Do you want a barcode, RFID chip or QR code to help you decide what to do with the product?

Manufacturers think you would be happy to have a cloud-based wealth of information when the laptop screen goes black or the coffee maker sits full of cold water. Are they correct? What information do you want?

Is a simple postcard or a return card all you still need? Is low technology still what a customer wants today? Does the decision make any difference if you are 70 years old or 22 years old?