retail news in context, analysis with attitude

In a letter sent to her membership, Katherine Albrecht, founder and president of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), criticizes Wal-Mart’s rollout of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology.

The letter reads:

    “Wal-Mart has crossed our line in the sand and has begun placing LIVE RFID TAGS on individual consumer goods. Last week, they began stocking the shelves of seven Dallas-Ft. Worth area stores with Hewlett Packard products with live spychips affixed. Wal-Mart has no plans to deactivate the tags at the register and instead tells customers they can deal with the tags themselves.

    “Wal-Mart executive vice president and chief information officer Linda Dillman said:

    “‘...down the road there are so many possibilities to improve the shopping experience that we hope customers will actually share our enthusiasm about EPCs,’ Dillman said, referring to the RFID-based Electronic Product Code industry hopes will replace the barcode. ‘As we look forward five, 10 years, we see the possibility of offering expedited returns, quicker warranty processing and other ways to minimize waiting in lines.’

    “Of course, each of these applications requires leaving the tags ‘live’ on products after sale, where they can be used to invade consumers' privacy. (To see how, please refer to information on our website at

    “It's time to roll up our sleeves and give Wal-Mart a lesson in ‘consumer acceptance’!”

In addition, CASPIAN has issued a press release charging that Wal-Mart is unethically “selling” the technology to consumers with “partial truths” that it passing off as consumer education.

“The giant retailer's decision to tag individual items on the store floor violates a call for a moratorium on such tagging issued last November by over 40 of the world's most respected privacy and civil liberties organizations,” according to the CASPIAN statement.

Part of the concern seems to be that Wal-Mart and other companies might be able to link information gathered via RFID technology and link it with loyalty marketing data, therefore infringing on consumer privacy.
KC's View:
While we’re enough of a conspiracy theorist to worry about invasion of privacy implications of RFID technology rollout, our primary reaction is that while almost anything is possible, it just seems incredibly unlikely that companies will do what CASPIAN worries about. After all, most retailers don’t even access or use all the loyalty marketing data they’ve accumulated…so a major effort in this area just seems unlikely. Though we concede that we could be a trifle naïve on this.

When we link RFID and conspiracies, we prefer what one MNB user once told us – that RFID is essentially a plot by Wal-Mart to bankrupt every other retailer in the US. The theory here is that everybody else will go broke trying to keep up with Wal-Mart on this, while it’ll really only cost the Bentonville Behemoth petty cash.

We also think that CASPIAN isn’t exactly a credible source of information on issues like this. We often think that the CASPIAN folks ought to be sent with the PETA folks to a desert island for the humorless lunatic fringe.

That said, retailers and manufacturers have to be cognizant of the potential landmines that RFID (and other) technologies present. These companies ought to have somebody on staff who has as a principal job recognizing privacy issues and advocating for consumers. It’s the only way, in our view, to navigate the minefield.