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High-tech plan for shoppers

New York Daily News | May 23rd, 2005
BY TOM VAN RIPER

How much privacy would you risk to make your shopping easier?

Imagine swiping an ID card at a kiosk as you enter a department store like Macy's or a discounter like Wal-Mart, informing the store you've come in.

After finding, say, a couple of pieces of clothing you like, you head to the dressing room to try them on.

If they fit, you just hold them under a scanner that's built right into the dressing stall.

A second later - presto - you own them.

The system, already equipped with your credit card info, has recorded the sale, and you walk right out of the store.

That's the latest vision of some big retailers and their tech partners.

Their new baby is a developing technology called RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), a small computer chip sewn right into clothing and other store items.

It's developed by Symbol Technologies, among other tech firms.

Already in place on the loading docks at Wal-Mart and a handful of other stores to better track inventory, RFID may expand to the customer side within a few years, some experts say.

In addition to quick sales, the chips are designed to make product recommendations based on past purchases, and to allow easy returns by rendering paper receipts obsolete.

These services may also translate into better prices for shoppers since they cut down on the number of check-out people required at the stores.

To its supporters, RFID "lets a store personalize information," said Robert Ganley of Sun Microsystems, one firm that's developing the technology. He sees it as an answer to the loss of the personal touch that many consumers lament since big chains started pushing mom and pop operations out of business.

"The question is, what makes the customer come back?" Ganley said.

But, consumer advocates contend, at what price does a person want to mark all of his or her shopping habits for public consumption?

Leaving that store with chips embedded in your jackets, pants and - some say eventually - groceries and drug store items, could set you up as a walking lightning rod for any passerby with his hands on a scanner.

Worse, critics say, imagine a police officer able to discreetly zap your purse or wallet to see what's inside.

"Readers could be installed in buildings or outside a store," said technology expert Jay Stanley of the ACLU.

"Or imagine an apartment right by the street, where people walking by can effectively 'peek in.'"

But backers say these warnings are overdone, especially since customers will likely have the option to deactivate the chip as they leave a store.

"People don't mind giving up some privacy when there's a benefit, but you'd have the option to kill it," said Alan Melling, director of Symbol Technology's retail practice.

He said it's tough to know for sure how long it will take to see RFID chips become a regular store staple.

Wal-Mart said it may well be several years before they move them from inventory pallets to the shelves. But most agree it's on the way.

"It will take some time, but there's no doubt it will be the wave of the future," Melling said.

 

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