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October 14, 2005

Consumer Group Calls For RFID Protest At Dallas Wal-Mart

Courtesy of InformationWeek

Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, a consumer privacy advocacy group, is calling for consumers to march on a Dallas Wal-Mart store on Saturday to protest its use of radio frequency identification technology. With protest signs in hand, privacy activist Katherine Albrecht, CASPIAN founder, will attend the march, along with Liz McIntyre, co-author of the newly published book "Spychips."

For more than a year Wal-Mart has been working with suppliers such as Hewlett-Packard & Co., Procter & Gamble, and other consumer goods companies to deploy a supply chain inventory tracking system based on RFID technology. Labels with the tiny RFID chips are affixed to cases and pallets before the supplier ships the goods from its distribution center in Sanger, Texas, to one of several stores – most in the Dallas area – where Wal-Mart has installed RFID readers and equipment – most of them in the Dallas area – before the products are shipped to participating stores.

The goal for Wal-Mart is to make sure that supplier merchandise, from razors and shaving cream to printers, are on the shelf instead of lost somewhere in a backroom when a customer comes looking for the item. Most suppliers participating in Wal-Mart's RFID project affix RFID labels to cases and pallets.

Small items such as toothbrushes are removed from cases and stocked on the shelf. Some of the larger items, such as Hewlett-Packard printers, are shipped with RFID tags on the side of individual boxes. They are stacked on shelves at the store in the original shipping carton, along with the shipping RFID label, instead of being removed from the box.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman says the company has been open about its use of RFID. "The front entrance doors have a decal that notifies customers electronic product code tags may be in use in the store," she says. "If customers have questions, we have the pamphlets available for them. In our press release of April 30, 2004, we specifically state that HP printers and scanners will have tags on the outside packaging."

"Wal-Mart does not have any RFID readers on the sales floor, as some retailers do, and neither Wal-Mart nor its suppliers will be hiding tags," she adds. "We have said all along that for those people who remain cautious of the technology, the best avenue is simply to remove the tag once you've purchased the product."

"While we respect the privacy advocates and their efforts, we want to ensure customers have the complete story on how RFID will and will not be used in the retail industry," the spokeswoman says. She added: "Safety is always a top priority for us and customers should not have any concerns about shopping this weekend at our stores."

Wal-Mart next week is expected to publish data from studies on RFID effectiveness conducted with help from a group of 24 consumer goods companies and technology vendors. The studies are being led by Bill Hardgrave, executive director of the Information Technology Research Center at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas. The research is expected to substantiate claims that RFID is "substantially" reducing the number of out-of-stock goods in Wal-Mart's RFID-enabled stores.

CASPIAN's stated goal in gathering protesters at Wal-Mart's Wheatland Road store in Dallas is to raise awareness about RFID. Instructions on CASPIAN's Web site suggest those who come to protest bring signs that are legible from a distance. "Use bold, black letters that contrast with the background. Your message should be clear, concise, and easily understood at a glance. No profanity, please," the notice reads.

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