October 16, 2003 12:33 PM PDT

U.K. retailer tests radio ID tags

Retailer Marks & Spencer has begun a trial of radio frequency identification tags in clothes at one of its U.K. stores this week as part of plans to improve stock accuracy and product availability for customers.

The tags, criticized by privacy advocates and touted by the technology industry as a bar code replacement, are contained within throwaway paper labels called Intelligent Labels attached to, but not embedded in, a selection of men's suits, shirts and ties at the High Wycombe store in the United Kingdom. The trial will last four weeks, the company said.

Other retailers and manufacturers such as Tesco and Gillette have attracted criticism from privacy groups about the potential for data from the radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to be used to track and monitor customers, even after they have left the store.

But Marks & Spencer has gone to great lengths to ensure a transparent approach to its trials and to limit which data is collected and what it will be used for, according to the company.

The tags will only hold the number unique to each garment, the company said. The information associated with this number is held on Marks & Spencer?s secure database and relates only to that product or garment?s details--for example, the size, style and color. The tags also have no power to emit a signal and only release their unique identification number in the presence of a Marks & Spencer scanner, according to the company.

The Intelligent Label is attached to the garment alongside the pricing label and is designed to be cut off and thrown away after purchase. For items such as shirts, which are pre-packed, the tag is stuck onto the transparent shirt bag.

"Irrespective of the method of payment, no association is made between the information on the Intelligent Label and the purchaser," a Marks & Spencer spokeswoman said.

The information will allow Marks & Spencer to check stock deliveries and count stock quickly in stores and depots, the company said.

The retail group will use two scanners for the tags. A portal installed at the distribution center and the loading bay of the store will allow rails of hanging garments and trolleys containing packaged garments to be pushed through and read quickly. A mobile scanner in a shopping trolley with a handheld reader will scan several garments at the same time out on the shop floor, the company said.

"With the ability to read product details on the RFID tags at different points in the supply chain, the information can be used to ensure that the right goods are delivered to the right store at the right time," the spokeswoman said. "Customers will therefore benefit from better availability of the goods they want each time they shop."

The scanners operate at frequencies and power permitted for RFID radio signals in Europe that are around eight times lower than those used in the United States. This means that the maximum accurate read range is around half a meter.

The U.S.-based consumer privacy group Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN), which has lobbied fiercely against RFID tags, welcomed Marks & Spencer's approach to its trials.

Katharine Albrecht, founder and director of CASPIAN, said in a statement: "We stand firm in our opposition to item-level RFID tagging of consumer products and encourage consumers not to purchase them. But we do want to recognize Marks & Spencer's responsible attitude toward the trial. Other retailers have simply chosen to ignore the serious privacy and health concerns of their customers."

Silicon.com's Andy McCue reported from London.

 

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