No time for nitpicking

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A UK broadsheet headline in September declared: ‘Big Brother smart tags in stores face legal battle’. The story focused on comments from the director of civil liberties group, Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, warning that ‘supermarket executives would love to be able to track every item of clothing we buy’.

In Miss Chakrabarti’s scenario this ‘unregulated’ technology would allow retailers to build up precise consumer profiles to drive marketing campaigns. As the article also pointed out, Marks & Spencer will be testing the system this autumn with ‘tiny smart tags in its suits’.

Add this report to the news earlier this year that fashion chain Benetton had decided to delay a massive RFID tagging programme because of concerns over privacy, and it is small wonder that the lawyers are already starting to rub their hands in glee.

There is just one flaw in the argument however. Marks & Spencer is not planning to trial tags ‘in suits’, it will simply be putting the labels on swing tickets and very few people actually leave these dangling from a pocket when they set out wearing their new outfit.

Keeping tags
As M&S’s IT director, Stuart Senior, says: ‘It would be nice if customers left the swing tags on when they return items to the store for exchange but we can’t be sure they will.’ M&S plans to read tags from truck to goods inward bay and onto shop floor to improve supply chain visibility. It will also be experimenting with additional service functions, such as helping customers co-ordinate an outfit by scanning tags at kiosks to see images of matching shirts or ties, but it certainly has no intention of tracking active tags concealed in suit linings as the wearers return to the store.

Or at least, it has no intention yet. ‘In the fullness of time,’ continues Senior, ‘as public acceptance grows and customers see additional advantages in such tags, then it is possible that could be considered.’ The sort of advantages which customers might come to appreciate include the ‘intelligent washing machine’ which will set its cycle based on the garment tags it reads, or maybe the DVD player which stores its own warranty details and service record so there’s no need to hunt for paper receipts when making a claim.

But all this is way into the future, not least because, despite the hype, RFID technology is still very immature. The tags won’t always work when there is too much metal around.

As Nigel Montgomery, European research director at AMR Research says: ‘Much of it is amazingly Heath Robinson, retailers are having to knock together all sorts of bits and pieces as the IT vendors simply don’t have the products ready yet.’ Not only is the kit rather basic but the tags are expensive: 30p rather than the 1p that would make mass market use of item-level tags viable.

Montgomery talks of prices falling to 5p in a couple of years. Senior talks of a ‘ten year haul’ with at least five years to go before the company even starts to think of embedding tags in clothing.

Currently the greatest prospect for RF-ID tags are in labelling food trays and other reusable containers with both Marks & Spencer and WalMart making great strides here. M&S has modest funding from the UK Department of Trade and Industry for its suit-tagging experiments while the Home Office has backed initiatives using RFID tags at Woolworths and Asda among others under its ‘Chipping of Goods’ initiative which is largely aimed at improving security and reducing store thefts.

Tesco’s current project tagging razor blades, which triggers a digital camera to photograph shoppers when the goods are removed from the shelf, has also incurred the wrath of Chakrabarti. Perhaps if she realised how many packs of razor blades are stolen each year – many in drug-related crimes – she would be rather less critical.

RFID has considerable potential not just to improve supply chain efficiency but to enable an array of customer service options that we are only just beginning to appreciate. It would be a pity if critics chasing headlines act as a deterrent to development.

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