Wal-Mart Cancels RFID Smart Shelf Trial

from the didn't-expect-that dept

While there have been some complaints about the privacy implications of companies using RFID chips on store shelves, most people were expecting Wal-Mart to just ram through acceptance of the technology. However, it sounds like they might be listening. Following a similar pattern set by clothing retailer Benetton, who announced RFID smart shelves and then quickly backed away, Wal-Mart has said that they’re cancelling plans to test RFID smart shelves with Gillette, a plan that had been announced back in January. Wal-Mart claims that the decision had more to do with their plans to focus on using RFID in their back-end operations than concerns about privacy issues. Some now believe that this suggests the RFID “bubble” is bursting, as companies are realizing that some of the overhyped promises of stores with no cash-registers and alerts when someone has picked up competing products aren’t likely to come true in the near future. For now, the benefits of RFID appear to be focused on “boring” applications like logistics and inventory tracking. This, also, should allow the costs of RFID chips to begin falling, to make them more reasonable for eventual use on store shelves. Hopefully, it also means that companies will have time to develop better answers to the privacy questions surrounding RFID.

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Comments on “Wal-Mart Cancels RFID Smart Shelf Trial”

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SB says:


Any store using RFID without the ability to permanently turn it off at the door, is a store I will not use. This is a deal breaker. I’m glad to hear Wal-Mart is rethinking their implementation of this technology. The potential benefits to the retail chains are obvious, the potential privacy issues still need to be addressed.

JH says:


OK, I’m curious. RFID tags are functionaly like bar codes with more detail that can be read with an RF receiver from a distance of a few milimeters to a meter. I’m baffled as to why there seems to be such a hue and cry about these devices, especially when there are so many legitimate security and privacy issues around. What exactly is it that is problematic about RFID tags?

Anonymous Coward says:


Yeah! Any company that uses *bar codes* won’t get my business since with a special reader that costs a few hundred dollars, they can get a few feet away and tell what I bought – the same as RFID!!

Yeah, and those grocery stores that require a membership card to tell what your purchasing in order to get lower prices, and membership stores like costco which track purchases to your actual name, they are probably going out of business since no one will use them, huh?

I mean, after all, I am SOOOOO important that what I buy is of extreme interest to SOMEONE, even though there are nearly 300 million of us ‘mericans, I am sure my purchases will stand out and someone will TRY TO SELL ME SOMETHING – OH MY GOD, WHAT A TERRIBLE WORLD WE LIVE IN!!!!

Oliver Wendell Jones (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: RFID

I read the article that Mike pointed to about why RFID is bad, and I guess I still don’t get it.

There are distinct problems with RFID, for example, the article talks about Wal-Mart pointing their magic wand at a pallete of inventory and immediately determining how many widgets are there – what if one of the widgets lost it’s tag? Now they have to break open the pallete and count every item only to confirm that, gosh darn it, the number hand written on the packing slip was correct all along!

They talk about banks using the tags to count money. What happens when someone microwaves their money, or washes it or intentionally removes the tags? Does that currency become worthless? Does that mean that every bank teller who manually counts 50 bills to a bundle has a chance of being fired because some of their bundles aren’t registering 50 distinct tags even though there are really 50 bills there?

I’m personally not afraid of RFID tags because of the limited range and the power required to scan things from any significant distance. Could a criminal drive down the street in his trusty RFID-detector van and pick out the RFID tag on my new wide-screen TV? Possibly, but wouldn’t it make more sense to put the tag on the box itself and not the TV? Couldn’t the same criminal just drive down the street and watch for people throwing out boxes the size of wide-screen TVs?

Maybe I just don’t get it…

Layna says:


The problem with boycotting Walmart or Target (not bad strategies) is, manufacturers of products such as Proctor and Gambel and Gilette are implanting the nearly microscopic chips in products. Even if a big boxy store doesn’t (yet) scan for them with a reader at the check-out line, they are being released into the public without the public’s consent(Nokia phones, Michelin tires, possibly Gap clothing).
And you might say so what? what do i care if there are chips in my shoes, my razors and my tires? well, unless you trust that all world governments and powerful entities will never,ever use them unethically and that’s alot of trust, there’s trouble. Powerful RFID readers(also called interrogators) which can work at 40 feet ranges now could be used to scan you, your car and yes any items that someone would want to steal. You might buy a used pair of shoes with an RFID in them that indicates a wanted felon’s credit card paid for them.(yell “i’m not him” as they drag you away).
A civil liberty threat? you bet. Large corporations are talking of requiring employees to carry RFID badges that could interact with readers in walls telling the boss just how many minutes you were in the bathroom. Immigrants, children, and the elderly would be targeted for monitoring.(Google RFID manufactures)
You think i’m kidding about the totalitarian potential of widespread acceptance of these things?
Both Malaysia and Hong Kong are beginning to issue national ID cards with RFID chips to track people.
this is fact not fantasy. So when they said nuclear technology was perfectly safe, there were sceptics. And in 2003, when civil liberties are slowly eroding away, sceptics are the healthiest people for our future.
ONe post said it: if stores (and the IT companies that design these systems) simply want inventory control, why don’t they just chip containers and boxes?

John F. Braun says:

RFID Versus Bar Codes

One of the big differences is that someone could scan an RFID without your knowledge. I would argue that this is not the case with a bar code. Although the range of the best (passive) RFID product is up to around a meter, one could imaging better ranges with more power and/or special antennas.

I do agree that some people do freak out a bit too much over privacy or lack thereof, but I can imagine some evil uses. If money has RFID tags, what’s to stop a sophisticated thief from scanning random people to find out how much money they have, and then altert a confederate to lift your wallet?

JH says:

Re: RFID Versus Bar Codes

OK, I read the article Mike linked to. It’s bogus. To insert a bit of reality in this discussion, spend some time reading the specs on RFID tags and readers. The scenarios in the article are purely paranoid fantasy. A reader transmitting enough energy to read a passive RFID tag from a distance of more than a couple of meters would cause bigger problems than invasion of privacy. And then there’s the problem of trying to distinguish the signals from potentially thousands of tags activated by such a reader. Of course there are legitimate privacy issues in the world, lots of them. This just doesn’t happen to be one of them.

euroman says:

Re: Re: RFID Versus Bar Codes

RFID Tags *are* a threat to your privacy. No question and I for one will nto shop where they are used. You ay they are not beacuse of low power etc.? Not a problem – when you enter/leave a shop you pass through those anti-theft gates. They are certainly cloe enough to pick up any RFID tags you are wearing. The data from these can then be correlated in many ways, e.g. if you are wearing something that was bought in that store then they could cross correlate that with your record of purchase for it and identify you. You say they won’t do that? I say they will, and I call that a violation of my privacy.

thecaptain says:

Re: Re: RFID Versus Bar Codes

“The scenarios in the article are purely paranoid fantasy. A reader transmitting enough energy to read a passive RFID tag from a distance of more than a couple of meters would cause bigger problems than invasion of privacy”
The problem is that right NOW what you say is true. I’ve read the specs also. However, what most people are concerned about is POTENTIAL. Technology moves faster, faster than the naked eye it seems at times.
What people are worried about is store adopting this technology, and then new “features” getting added on later, such as, scanning from a distance, RFID tags that are always on and plenty of things like detailed consumer profiling (not just inside one store…but everywhere you go), to ceaseless assault from “interactive” commercials based on what you’re wearing at the time…and the very real threat that this can be used in an extremely negative manner (I think the burglar and mugger examples mentionned in this discussion would qualify).
The issue of cost also comes to mind, this will be set on the back of the consumer, me. I don’t want to pay out of my wallet for a technology with so little advantage to me that has such a HUGE potential to annoy/harm me. Period.
Its plain that the publicized advantages of this technology do not even come close to outweighing the negative potential of it. (I say publicized because I’m sure most companies are drooling at the marketting/profiling aspects for this but aren’t trumpetting that to an already wary general public).

sbdwestpac says:

privacy not only problem

My beef with the RFID tags isn’t just privacy but cost. Right now the tags cost a nickel (more or less) to manufacture. Wal Mart isn’t going to eat that nickel, they’re going to pass it on to you. So if you buy say 100 items at the grocery store, that’s an extra five bucks out of your pocket. Even if the cost per chip comes down, the whole cost of infrastructure (chips, readers, software, etc…) will be passed on to the consumer.

munich says:

Re: privacy not only problem

Walmart passing cost on to the consumer? So their higher cost will put them at a cost advantage of “mom and pop” stores that don’t have RFID and put Walmart out of business? Your state government adding a .5% sales tax is more likely.

Walmart won’t do anything that doesn’t lower its costs (in this case, streamline and provide more data for its supply chain), lower consumers costs (employ less stockers, lowering store costs), or somehow increase consumer retention (they are never out inventory since they can track it real time)

My take is that the people who are scared of RFID either

1. Don’t understand it, as in “someone casing your house”. As specificed, the range is not possible, and if it were, why would they spend thousands of dollars on readers to find out you have Wheaties in your pantry and Haynes underwear in your dresser? (also, the RFID is likely to be on the box/package, not your underwear tag). Everyone in the U.S. has a TV and other electronics and a crook doesn’t need any info to know you have it. As for that Renoir, it won’t have an RFID – just for mass produced items.

Also, next time you are in Barnes and Nobel, find the RFID tag that is in the book for anti-theft dectection. You might already have an RFID in your home (one fell out of a book I was reading at home since they slip it randomly in the pages)

They don’t call it “RFID”, but it’s the same thing

2. Inflated Sense of Self Worth – About 10 years ago I read about credit card companies keeping records of your purchases, so I ditched a bunch of them and started paying cash for more stuff. I thought myself very important and certainly someone, sonewhere would be curious about all my purchases. As I got older I just figured out that my data is not important as an individual, but in mass with others (sort of like the concept in Asimov’s Foundation Series – marketers cannot predict/sell to the buying patterns of individuals, only masses). Ditching thos cards, however, didn’t stop the junk mail, and now spam.

3. Worrying about scenarios that won’t apply to them – quick, what is the largest amount of cash you EVER had on you? While it is extremely doubtful that RFID would ever find itself in money, if it did, no one is going to be concerned about the average $50 you have in your wallet, or the time you took out $1000 for that strip party in Vegas (and I guess all those people would automatically be against “electronic currency”, credit cards, debit cards and, yes, checks, that are all trackable and already make up the majority of transactions today – and don’t forget whenever you use an ATM to get cash – wham – you’re being tracked by amount, location and time). Traceability is a non-issue with “money” today.

4. Just Something to Rant About – Why not rant about RFID? It’s not like there are other things in the world to worry about, is there?

But, hey, if it really bothers you, don’t shop at places that use it, only buy goods on-line, but use some way that isn’t traceable (even Paypal is traceable at some point). I guess you could use the black market and barter goods…

mike (profile) says:

Re: privacy not only problem

self-disclosure…i’m a marketing type.

The extra nickle per item would easily be made up by better inventory control. Think less shrinkage, stocked shelves, better re-order points, etc.

The privacy issues raised do make me druel a little at the targeted marketing possibilities. But I can’t imagine anyone using the tactic. Public outcry would kill any benefit.

I bet that everyone should prepare because this will become a reality. It’s just too useful to pass up.

mhh5 says:

wouldn't the solution to the "problems" be quite e

The thing I don’t get is why don’t they just make the RFID tags “expire” after a certain amount of time? Or sell RFID “killers” to people who are paranoid? Just zap everything you own, or install a faraday cage around your house….

There seem to be plenty of solutions to this privacy “problem”….?

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