Cutting-edge 'smart shelf' test ends

The largest supermarket chain in Britain ends a test of a system designed to track purchases and thefts of Gillette razors. Privacy-advocates had bristled over the setup.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
3 min read
The largest supermarket chain in Britain has ended a controversial field trial of a merchandise-tracking system that shoppers claimed violated their privacy.

The Tesco chain stopped using a high-tech shelf that it was testing in a Cambridge store, Greg Sage, a spokesman for the company, confirmed Friday. The shelf was designed to monitor stock and detect theft of Gillette razors, which are commonly stolen, by recording images of shoppers who removed razors from the shelf. The system also grabbed images at the cash register, when razors were rung up, according to reports. People taped at the shelf but not at the register could be suspected of shoplifting.

Tesco's experiment with the shelf, which began in February and wrapped up in July, was scheduled to last only six months, Sage said. The trial ended as originally scheduled, and was not affected by a privacy protest that occurred over several days in June, Sage said.

"There is no connection between the fact that people protested and the fact that the field trial ended," Sage said.

Sage said Tesco is still using a similar "smart shelf" system at a store in Sandhurst, Berkshire, to monitor its stock of DVDs, but that trial does not involve any cameras. He said the company is still deciding whether it will use the camera-based system in any of its stores.

The end of Tesco's Cambridge trial comes just weeks after Wal-Mart Stores canceled a similar, Gillette-related test in a Boston area store. However, Wal-Mart's trial, which also had attracted criticism from privacy advocates, never fully got off the ground. Wal-Mart said its reason for prematurely ending the test was that it had shifted its focus toward using the technology in its warehouses instead. The Wal-Mart test did not involve camera surveillance, said Paul Fox, a Gillette spokesman. Fox said Gillette thinks smart shelf technology should not be used in conjunction with such monitoring.

Smart-shelf trials at both Tesco and Wal-Mart involved the use of new computing devices based on a technology known as RFID (radio frequency identification). The tests were among the first and most closely watched efforts to bring RFID technology to store shelves in the United States and Europe.

RFID technology uses microchips to wirelessly transmit product codes to a scanner without the need for human intervention. The technology is seen as an eventual successor to bar-code inventory tracking systems, promising to cut distribution costs for manufacturers and improve retailing margins.

The technology has drawn fire from consumer-privacy groups, which worry about potential abuses if product-tracking tags are allowed to follow people from stores into their homes. Their concerns have recently led lawmakers in California and Britain to begin discussing RFID and its implications for society.

Gillette continues to participate in a smart-shelf trial with German retail chain Metro, said Fox, who denied that Gillette has retreated from putting RFID chips on its merchandise, as recent reports have suggested.

But Gillette has learned that inserting chips into billions of individual products on a broad scale is still many years away, Fox said. The price of the chips has not fallen rapidly enough to justify such an undertaking. So, Gillette and its retailers are shifting their attention to using RFID systems to track shipments to warehouses, which requires far fewer chips, Fox said.