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Monday, January 30, 2006

Shopping futures: Buyer Beware

The shopping experience of the future, what will it be like? It's certainly a question on the minds of many anarchists these days. In all seriousness, though, even the most self-righteous dumpster diver who never sets foot in a Wal-Mart or a mall would do well to pay attention to developments in the retail industry.

"From an operational point of view, self-scanning removes human intervention from the equation," says Nick Gladding, senior researcher at retail analyst Verdict. Gladding was interviewed in a recent article for IT Week online, and what he meant by 'human intervention' is that the cashier can't hook you - or him or herself - up anymore. RFID - coming soon (maybe already here) to a store near you - will usher in a new era of tracking and regulation of goods in and around the store (and probably beyond).

The elite has always placed great value in technology as a class war weapon, and RFID is no different in this respect. Workers power will be increasingly reduced on the job as more and more work becomes deskilled or replaced, and wages and benefits will suffer accordingly. And, this being capitalism, redundancy brings starvation, not retirement, for workers.

Terry Crookes, IT manager of retailer Streetwise Sports, says, "It is all about loss prevention and stock control. The other big thing is to know the amount of theft committed internally." That's nothing new to regular readers of this blog. Technological advancements at work generally focus on increasing management control of workers or 'inventory control' - a codeword for 'theft.' Not the kind of theft like when your boss forgets to pay you all the hours she owes you. The kind of theft where you get even with your thieving boss. The kind that can get you fired or sent to jail.

As reported in the business section of the Scotsman last week,
In Japan, the process is set to go further as department store Mitsukoshi pilots radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to help improve customer satisfaction.

In the ladies' shoe department, every pair of shoes is fitted with an RFID tag. By scanning the tag at a nearby kiosk salespeople can instantly receive detailed information about available sizes, colours and descriptions.

Where the necessary shoes are in stock, staff in the stockroom can be called to bring the shoes to the customer.
It's sold as customer convenience, but RFID, combined with data mining, will put the lie once and for all to the myth that the capitalist hates regulation, because the new technology will allow them to count and quantify almost everything, down to the most painful and embarrassingly private details. They may not like being regulated themselves, but as much as it sounds like a socialist dream, the capitalist in the next few years will be revealed for the pathological regulatory fetishists that we knew they really were all along. They want to know where everything - and everyone - in their store is at every possible time. And RFID will help them do it.

You may not have known it, Mr. and Ms. American Consumer (or anti-consumer, as the case may be), but it turns out that you have been demanding this technology all along. Frustrated at the amount of time pulling your wallet out several times a day steals from you, you have forced the powerless capitalists into spending massive amounts of money on this new technology - all for your convenience!

The capitalists have successfully shifted most Americans' identities within the system from workers to consumers, and as such we think of ourselves coming in contact with the capitalist system as demanders of services rather than receivers of orders, as receivers of discounts rather than providers of low wage labor. With a title that reflects this transformation of identity, the article, "How retailers can keep the customer satisfied," illuminates the point at which the two identities come into conflict.
Analyst Gartner predicts retailers using RFID to improve on-shelf availability will begin to outperform rivals in customer satisfaction by the end of this year.

The number one issue for the shopper is out-of-stock merchandise – an inconvenience that causes 47 per cent of customers to shop elsewhere as a result. New RFID implementations must be linked to workforce management technologies to ensure that replenishment tasks are allocated and completed.
The problem, and what most Americans don't seem to realize, is that workforce management comes hand in hand with this alleged consumer satisfaction. Can someone be a satisfied consumer at the same time the boss is looming over her shoulder with "workforce management technologies to ensure that replenishment tasks are allocated and completed." Time will tell.

More commonly known as subsidies or entitlements when they go to poor people - which they increasingly do not - this technology has been massively supported through 'guaranteed markets' in the Defense budget, where all DoD suppliers will be required to utilize RFID by 2007. In fact, the Department of Defense now provides RFID manufacturers their biggest market, second only to Wal-Mart, itself renowned for its reactionary attitude towards workers. CircuitAssembly.com reported on January 26th that,
[s]ales of RFID tags and related products will hit $2.71 billion this year, and rise to $12.35 billon by 2010, says research firm IDTechEx.
The impact on the overall market is expected to be huge. Under the ominous subheading, "A trillion tags by 2015," an article from PhysOrd.com claimed
[t]he potential impact of RFID is so vast it is attracting the attention of industry and government worldwide. In October 2005, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) dedicated a special session to RFID's economic promise and social implications. Delegates from business and research organizations highlighted applications from healthcare to tire pressure monitoring.
It's interesting how one rarely hears the capitalists complain about the distortions in the market caused by governments subsidizing or facilitating the adoption of technologies intended to dominate workers.

But, unsurprisingly, the public dialogue is framed in terms of customer convenience, not class struggle. Consider the glowing terms that Digital Life Magazine uses to describe the digital shopping cart of the future.
It's the greatest feeling in the world to walk into a busy supermarket and leave without saying a single word. Now, that's possible with the super electronic shopping cart that comes loaded with an RFID scanner, an LCD screen, all hooked to a kart [sic] for purchasing up at the register. You never have to ask for assistance about how much something costs, or maybe even the location of products in the store - if the technology includes a "search" feature.
I shudder to think just how terrifying an experience contemporary shopping must be for these folks. Their already crippling social anxiety disorders amplified due to reduced human contact, these folks seem to relish the lack of human contact future shopping will afford them: "It really would be awesome for this technology to spread world wide, as if would make operations a whole lot smoother, and easier to execute. "

Efficiency is definitely one of the key advantages highlighted by RFID enthusiasts. Never is it explained just how or when paying cash had become inconvenient; the point is that cashless transactions - aside from being easier to regulate (not generally mentioned) - are just plain more convenient, or simpler. Again, from PhysOrg.com:
Nonetheless, the benefits of RFID are undeniable. It makes life easier - and not just in what might be called 'typical' applications. Philips has recently showcased product concepts that represent an expression of our promise of Sense and Simplicity over the next three to five years. Many incorporate RFID and / or intuitive wireless connectivity.
But because RFID's main application - regulation of workers and consumers - is beyond dispute (and comment in the mainstream), the arguments made in favor of the technology often border on the ridiculous.
Hospitals are stressful for adults and can be positively scary for children. The Ambient Experience brings together an MRI or CT scanner, ambient lighting, dynamic projection, surround sound and RFID technology to turn scary into fun.

"Let's say a young boy is going for a CAT scan," says John Anastos, Chairman of Radiology at the Lutheran General Hospital. "First, he gets to preview various animation themes. He chooses his favorite and takes a holographic RFID badge with a Philips ICODE chip. When he goes into the examination room, he waves the badge at the scanning equipment, and the walls and ceiling come to life with animations, accompanied by music and other sounds. It keeps him relaxed and it's a great way to give him instructions. When it's time for him to hold his breath, he sees a cartoon character holding his own breath!"
In America, almost any law can be passed if it's "for the kids." Counterintuitive arguments are par for the course when it comes to RFID, and, as with the computer shopping cart, humans are generally treated as infants overwhelmed by life's complexities or numbskulls unable to see the benefits - so frustratingly clear to elites - that the technology offers. And so we get lectured in patronizing tones:
"RFID is a prime example of how advanced technology improves people's lives. It may be hidden, part of a wider whole, but it is a fundamental enabler that makes a product, service or experience simpler and easier."
The benfits are supposed to be so obvious and yet at the same time they require so much explaining. All the while we are supposed to believe that the customer - the consumer - is the driving agent behind the changes! Clearly there is a major propaganda effort in full swing.

But, when you break it down, the argument goes like this: Simplicity and convenience - that's what simple-minded Americans need. And they need to be tracked. According to TMCnet.com,
Already, grocers in the Orlando area, including Albertsons, Winn-Dixie and Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market -- which opened a fourth Central Florida store this week -- have rolled out self-serve checkout machines, a technology that is expected to become much more common.

Marshal Cohen, retail analyst for the research firm NPD Group, told those at the convention that today's consumers are increasingly looking for a shopping "experience" that caters to individual needs and entertains.

To that end, retailers hoping to stand out from the crowd are embracing cutting-edge services such as a Web-based shopping assistant that can help you navigate through a store to find that favorite brand of chocolate ice cream.

Wal-Mart Stores, which continues to expand in the region -- its next supercenter is scheduled to open in Clermont at the end of the month -- said it has been testing a digital assistant that attaches to a shopping cart and can point you to store specials, download your shopping list, and keep a running price total of the items in your basket.
And so the argument naturally flows that
[f]or patrons with American Express RFID-enabled ExpressPay cards, fast food can now be even faster at 12,000 U.S. McDonald's locations. That's because these stores are now accepting the cards, which use radio frequency to send encrypted account data to readers integrated in point-of-sale systems. ExpressPay transactions are quicker than paying with cash or conventional magnetic-stripe cards.

"Given that so many of our customers are all about speed of service and convenience, this is a perfect fit," says McDonald's spokesperson William Whitman. "We're hearing from our customers at front counters and drive-throughs that this is a convenience they appreciate."
RFID boosters are quick to cite the numbers:
American Express began pilot tests of its ExpressPay system in 2002, completing them in 2004. The results of the tests showed that, on average, ExpressPay transactions were 63 percent faster than using cash, with consumers involved in the tests citing convenience and simplicity of use as two of ExpressPay's major benefits.
A major propaganda victory! What Americans require, from their own mouths: convenience and simplicity. Finally, the tyranny of not finding an item you're looking for - or forgetting what you came for - is over:
With the scan of a loyalty card, smart carts — using grocery lists shoppers have entered online — can plot routes around the store and remind shoppers of what to buy. Shoppers also can place orders in the deli or bakery from the device, which notifies them when their food is ready to pick up.
With such a low opinion of us, you'd think that capitalists would be afraid that we'd leave our money at home. What a disaster!

Well, they are. But, they have a solution.
According to a study by an analyst at financial firm Sanford Bernstein, both Wal-Mart and Costco are "looking ... closely" at biometric checkout systems, which would allow consumers to pay via finger-scan (neither company would comment on the report). To use the system, customers would register at an in-store kiosk, where they would provide credit-card information that would be attached to a fingerprint. At checkout, the customer would place their finger on a scanner, and the appropriate credit info would be pulled up. According to the study, biometric checkouts -- which are already in use in branches of some supermarket chains, including Albertson's and Piggly Wiggly -- could save Wal-Mart as much as 20% in processing costs. Of course, privacy advocates are likely to balk at providing major retailers with fingerprints, but we sort of assume that, as big as it is, Wal-Mart's already got the ability to collect any data that they want, and withholding our prints isn't going to change that.
Note the cynical dismissal of technology critics on one hand, and the resignation before the looming total surveillance society on the other. It's an odd reversal of the role of critic, where the naive techno-sympathizer criticizes the dubious luddite while admitting the inevitability of the doubter's argument, essentially attacking anyone skeptical of the technology with a razor-edged "Yeah, so what?"

So, just in case the propaganda didn't work, retailers are looking at a variety of ways to coerce and entice shoppers into participating in their RFID network.
Accenture's [director of research, Michael] Redding said one bank in Latin America wants to roll out RFID-chipped cards to its VIP clients. "They are trying to make it a status symbol," he said. "By making it an object of desire they can get people to elect to take part."
The transition won't be that hard for some businesses.
This vision of the branch of the future isn't just sci-fi whimsy, Redding said. All of these technologies are "being used somewhere by a bank. All these things are happening in a piecemeal fashion."
However, there's always the critics.
While some people might be concerned about carrying around so many RFID chips, Redding is confident they will be accepted. "It's not a question of will people do it," he said. "It's a case of how many ones will they carry."

Many customers will see such technologies as bringing advantages--trading off some of their privacy in return for shorter lines or better services, he said. "It's about letting the customer choose. Forcing the customer is not a good story because people won't accept it.
See, you will pay, one way or another. So much the better if they can make you think you chose it, even if you don't remember electing it.

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