The goal is to give retailers a combined RFID method for handling inventory tracking and shoplifting-deterrence, but complaints range from privacy, standardization to health.
Checkpoint Systems on May 1 introduced a combined tag product, which is designed to deliver Electronic Product Code inventory and item-level tracking along with Electronic Article Surveillance anti-theft capabilities. But the move has prompted an unusual amount—and diversityof criticism, ranging from privacy and health risk issues to standardization and support for retail returns.
What Checkpoint rolled out May 1—in the backyard of Disneyworld—was a new family of dual-function labels called Evolve.
The line appears to be the first product to attempt to merge inventory and anti-theft measures. The patent-pending line will be Gen 2 compliant and will operate in the UHF (ultra high frequency) band of 860 to 960 MHz, but at 8.2 MHz for RF-EAS (Radio Frequency EAS) systems, according to Checkpoint officials.
But the launch hadnt even happened when critics started circling the wagons. On the privacy front, consumer advocate author—and vehement anti-RFID leader—Katherine Albrecht sent e-mail to consumers saying the combination is a "consumer privacy nightmare" because it takes a crucial next step in RFID communications, linking the 24-x-7 active anti-theft devices with the item-level tracking capabilities of RFID.
This is all theoretical at this stage because Checkpoint has yet to get any retailers to agree to use the new labels. But Albrecht said her concerns were also tactical. If one manufacturer starts sewing tracking devices in a line of jeans, for example, her organization could boycott that manufacturer. But if Checkpoint is selling these tags to many national retail chains, its much more
difficult to protest, Albrecht said.
Checkpoint CEO George Off said he disagrees with the bulk of Albrechts privacy concerns, but he negated her primary concern by agreeing with what she said was a core goal.
"When EPC gets involved, I think consumers have a right to know," Off said in a telephone interview. "Consumers should be made aware."
The background of EPC puts some of this controversy into context. The core group behind EPC—EPCglobal—has been pushing Gen 2. Part of the history is that several vendors—including Checkpoint, Sensormatic Electronics and 3Mwere involved and supported an effort to standardize one anti-theft standard. Procter & Gamble and Gillette, before they merged, were strong supporters of the effort, said Pete Abell, a former RFID analyst for IDC who today runs his own Amherst, N.H. consulting company called Kaleidoscope Technology Strategy.
The problem is that UHF doesnt work for anti-theft because its thwarted by metal—such as in the aluminum foil-lined shopping bags that shoplifters are fond of—and liquid. Checkpoints approach is to piggyback its proprietary method atop the Gen2 standard. Whether such a move supports the standard or undermines it is a matter of debate.
Checkpoints Off said he sees this as more of a short-term fix, adding that "I think (Gen2) will evolve into a nice item-level standard."
Abell said he has other concerns, namely that the always-on four-watt readers with this package are powerful enough to detect shoplifters using foil-lined bags, but they are also powerful enough to cause medical harm.
Read more here about an RFID consortium that is working to advance the technology in the market.
Abell pointed to government safety standards of how long—and how close—employees and customers can be to the readers. "In six minutes, (a worker) is over the OSHA limit," Abell said, adding that baby carriages parked near restrooms that happen to be near backroom readers are also of concern.
"They now have a serious problem at EPCglobal. They have never thought they would have a human safety issue," Abell said. "This is one of the reasons (the limit is) two watts in Europe versus four watts here" in the United States.
Greg Buzek, president of the IHL Consulting Group in Franklin, Tenn., and a veteran retail tech consultant, said he thinks that what Checkpoint is doing makes sense, but said hes not sure they are the best vendor implementation of the idea.
"I have always believed that the every-unit-item RFID would be a marriage of EAS technology and loss prevention technology. However, I am not sold on the Checkpoint approach because there does not appear to be the ability to turn the RFID portion off and then on again if someone wants to make a return," Buzek said. "To turn off the EAS portion of an RF tag, you have to blow the circuit for EAS portion but that would either leave the RFID tag live or turn it completely offwith no option of being turned back on. My opinion is that the accusto-magnetic technology offered by ADT/Tyco would be a superior technology to marry with RFID. That technology can be turned on and off."
Checkpoints Off disagreed with Buzek about ADT/Tyco, saying that ADTs technology could also not be reactivated once disrupted.
Regarding the privacy concerns, Buzek and Off saw eye-to-eye. Buzeks dismissed Albrechts privacy concerns by projecting what would be involved for such a network to actually try and track a consumer.
"The (privacy) argument is completely unfounded. Lets take the case of the items in a single supercenter for one store. Thats about 250,000 items. Lets also assume that to track the tags effectively, you need to ping them once a second. Third, lets assume each tag contains 18 bytes of information, which actually is a very low estimate," Buzek said. "For one store alone, that is 4.5-MB per second of data storage, 270-MB per minute, 16.2-GBB per hour, 388.8-GB per day for just one store. You then have storage and network issues both within and external to the store. Lets assume for a moment 2,000 stores. Thats 777.6 TB worth of data a day that has to be saved and sent to a headquarters location over a network before you match any customer information to it, let alone query the information."
Other RFID trackers were less excited about the news, mostly because they said the item-level RFID market is so immature right now.
"I dont see this being a huge story. Theft tags arent terribly new, although it would be convenient for businesses to have one tag to attach instead of two if they want to use RFID," said Jennifer Albornoz Mulligan, an RFID analyst for Forrester Research. "Very few companies at this point are doing item level tagging or even consumer product tagging in a retail situation."<
P>Raghu Das, a prominent RFID analyst in Europe with IDTechEx, echoed Mulligans take. "It was inevitable at some point that EAS and RFID would be combined as it is here and ultimately EAS will be subsumed by RFID functionality so you have just one tag not two combined into one," Das said, "but that is still some time away as RFID is not anywhere near as robust as EAS is."
Nikki Baird, the executive director of research for Retail Systems Alert Group, says this is so expected that she initially said she didnt even recognize the Checkpoint effort as new at all. "That combination of RFID and EAS was inevitable. It was only a matter of time before someone brought it to market, especially since so many people in the industry have been pointing to counterfeiting and management of high-value items as the most solid business cases for item-level RFID," Baird said.
Retail Center Editor Evan Schuman can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.
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Evan Schuman is the editor of CIOInsight.com's Retail industry center. He has covered retail technology issues since 1988 for Ziff-Davis, CMP Media, IDG, Penton, Lebhar-Friedman, VNU, BusinessWeek, Business 2.0 and United Press International, among others. He can be reached by e-mail at Evan.Schuman@ziffdavisenterprise.com.