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U.K. Retailer Tests Smart Tags on Clothing

Clothing retailer Marks & Spencer this week said it is moving forward with its test of tagging individual products with RFID tags that can automate inventory and stocking.

RFID tags are tiny transponders that can communicate at short distances with reading devices. The trial bends over backward to address privacy concerns: The tags are conspicuous, shoppers can ask to have them removed, and readers will be used only after hours when no consumers are present. But Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) wants the test stopped.

This isn't the British retailer's first foray into RFID. In June, it replaced the cardboard boxes traditionally used to transport fresh flowers from the wholesaler to the store with a reusable plastic container called a Qbox. Qboxes have an integral RFID chip that automatically delivers information about the contents. In 2002, it completed a successful trial using the technology to track 3.5 million produce delivery trays in its grocery division.

Marks & Spencer received funding from Britain's Department of Trade & Industry to help develop the clothing project, one of the first to test the use of RFID at the item level. Large, lilac-colored tags on men's shirts, ties and jackets will give each garment a unique serial number which can be automatically read when it comes near an RFID reader.

Marks & Spencer is one of the UK's largest retailers, selling its own brands of clothing, food, housewares and financial services. The company said that if the technology were implemented across the 350 million clothing items it sells each year, it would be able to know the exact location of any garment in the entire supply chain. At the store level, the tags will automate stock inventories and help the staff locate different sizes of garments quickly.

"Marks & Spencer has a closed-loop system, because they have all private-branded merchandise, as opposed to having to set up a system for multiple suppliers," said Steve Brown, vice president of RFID consultancy Acsis. "That's an easier implementation, because they control the entire supply chain."

Brown said it's difficult to determine whether item-level tagging can pay off in the short term, while the benefits of tracking products at the case and pallet level are clear.

While there's clear utility for the retailer, Marks & Spencer is setting a dangerous precedent, according to CASPIAN. The volunteer consumer privacy organization has taken a strong stand against the use of RFID for consumer products. Marks & Spencer consulted with CASPIAN before launching the trial, according to CASPIAN founder and director Katherine Albrecht, and, as a result, decided not to install RFID readers at cash registers.

"Without a reader, there's not a problem," Albrecht told internetnews.com. "That's the critical piece." CASPIAN objects to RFID readers at the check stand as a replacement for bar codes, because the product information could be matched with a consumer's personal information that's available through a bank debit or credit card. "That's where you get massive consumer privacy implications," she said.

Nevertheless, CASPIAN came out against Marks & Spencer's trial. She acknowledged that the company is socially responsible and had taken steps to fully inform customers about the tags.

"If all companies out there held Marks & Spencer's high standards of accountability and public openness," she said, "maybe our position would be different." But Albrecht thinks that evaluating every trial of product-tagging in terms of its respect for consumers' privacy would send the technology down the slippery slope of acceptance. "It can become an incredibly complex message that's lost in the sound-bite world," she said. "If you're going to do [item-level tagging], this is the way to do it. But you shouldn't do it. CASPIAN opposes item-level tagging. Period."