Ange — The card up their sleeve

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The card up their sleeve
It sounds good – loyalty cards entitle us to freebies or cash simply for shopping at our local superstore. Of course, retailers get something in return: a heap of information about us we might prefer them not to know. That’s before they get started on the new tags that track you and what you buy. Rachel Shabi investigates
Saturday July 19, 2003
The Guardian
Every time you reach the checkout in the two biggest supermarket chains, it’s the same question: have you got a card? It can get irritating, but nonetheless we have willingly signed up to their reward schemes – in droves. According to market researchers TNS, around 85% of UK households have at least one loyalty card. We’ve accepted the membership rules of these innocent-looking, points-mean-prizes clubs: you show us some loyalty, say the retailers, and we’ll give you nice bonuses in return.
That loyalty, on the face of it, is based on how much you spend with one particular retailer. Sure, the rewards aren’t huge but, as Tesco likes to put it, “Every little helps.” Besides which, we in the UK love bargains, and getting something for nothing even more. But the question is: how much does the nothing really cost? It is not simply a matter of choosing to be “loyal”, now synonymous with “open your wallet”, to one supermarket over another – the cost is in having your purchases scrutinised and analysed in staggering detail by the loyalty card retailers. You’d be amazed what they can do with a seemingly innocuous flow of till receipts, coupled with your loyalty card. Worse, having accepted the principles of these schemes so gamely, we have paved the way for the kind of surveillance technology that will turn your stomach once you realise that it is happening in real time and not in some implausible, futuristic film. Right now, we are the unsuspecting guinea pigs for comprehensive trials of new customer-tracking, shop spy technology.
It began when Britain absorbed a shopping paradigm shift engineered through the loyalty card scheme. British retail, especially supermarket retail, is among the most competitive on the planet. Merlin Stone, business research leader at IBM, explains: “Grocery retailing in the UK is a classic oligopoly, with the top three or four firms accounting for around 60% of the market.” Those companies are fighting for an overall UK grocery spend of £65bn a year. In such a fierce climate, there’s a constant search for smart weapons to gain an edge.
Enter the loyalty scheme, beginning with the Tesco Clubcard introduced in 1995. One year later, Clubcard holders were spending 28% more at Tesco and 16% less in arch-rival Sainsbury’s. The latter soon followed suit with its Reward card, launched the same year and with a membership of 10m by 1998. Safeway introduced its version, the ABC card, in 1995 – although this was ditched in 2000 – and Boots rolled out the Advantage card in 1997. Scores of other operators – Barclaycard, BP, Shell, WHSmith – developed similar schemes and then, in September 2002, Air Miles founder Keith Mills introduced the consortium concept that is the Nectar card. With heavyweight companies such as Sainsbury’s, BP, Debenhams and Barclaycard among its members, the Nectar scheme was thrust upon us with the biggest advertising campaign since the National Lottery, costing a reported £50m. By February this year, Nectar had signed up 11m UK households (out of a total of 22m). Today, the Tesco Clubcard has 10m active households, while the Boots Advantage scheme, current favourite in the card-pack, claims 15m members.
And why wouldn’t we fall so heavily for these cards? For doing nothing more than we always did – shop – the stores seem willing to throw money at us. More fool them, you might think, as you cash in points to redeem all manner of tempting handouts, from a “treat yourself” menu of manicures and facials at Boots, to cinema tickets and “great days out” with Nectar. There is no catch or con to the mechanics of loyalty reward schemes. Tesco, for example, gives you a point worth a penny for every pound you spend, which you receive once you hit 150 points. You can spend these in store, or redeem them against “freetime” offers such as hotel tokens – a £40 token in exchange for £20 Clubcard vouchers, say – or Air Miles. Boots gives the most generous rate – four points (worth 4p) per pound – so it takes even less time to see the rewards. The retailers even help you decide how to claim your points. If, for instance, you’re having a dither moment in Boots, no problem: slot your Advantage card into an in-store machine and ask it to “find me a treat”. The loyalty card, in this context, is your friend – but what else is it?
Tesco issues vouchers worth £200m each year, spends 11p on each physical card and sends loyalty letters to 10m Clubcard homes four times a year, with no subsidies from Royal Mail. Loyalty retailers don’t talk specific costs, but it is clear from this information alone that running such schemes involves large sums of money. So where, aside from the rosy glow of benevolence, is their return?
On the surface, loyalty cards get you to increase – or “consolidate”, as the marketing people say – your spend in one store. Given the choice between two stores, we are more likely to shop at the one where we earn rewards. “Most retailers who have launched a loyalty scheme experience a 1-4% sales uplift. The more common ones… are around 2%,” says Crawford Davidson, marketing director of Tesco Personal Finance. When you consider Tesco’s UK sales grew to £23.4bn in the year ending February 2003, that small percentage represents one hell of a consolidation.
Behind this visible profit benefit lies the genius purpose of these schemes. In the dark days before their introduction, the retail giants tried to gain consumer attention with advertising, mass marketing and special offers – effectively chucking money at us indiscriminately in the hope that it would boomerang back in increased sales. Then retailers found a way to scrutinise the shopper – not as a generic mass but as an individual: you.
Consider the detailed information that every loyalty card user volunteers to the store. Each swipe of the card sends your spend – what you bought, where and how you paid for it – into a databank profile of your purchase history, along with the personal information you gave when you signed up for the card. A Boots Advantage card application form will have asked you for your employment status, number of children, spectacles or contact lens usage and, if you are pregnant, when your baby is due. The Nectar card, meanwhile, asks how many people live in your house, the ages of those under 18, the number of cars you have and your total household mileage. The Clubcard form at least puts its questions about dietary preferences and who you live with in an “optional” information box, but the chances are you’ll have filled it in, anyway.
Now we have a busy industry of data-miners looking at your profile to glean specific observations on how you like to buy. Edwina Dunn, CEO of Dunnhumby, data analysts for Tesco, says, “You can find people interested in cooking from scratch, or people who shop with distinct flavours in mind, or where convenience is key. We are trying to track lifestyles in terms of what is in the basket.” Studying till receipts will show whether you use a grocery store for a main shop or for a specific menu, or the number of people in your house, signalled by how much toilet roll you get through. If you’ve just had a child, your loyalty card retailer will be among the first to know; if you’re about to go on holiday, they can tell that, too.
Since retailers have found a way to know you, your habits and your lifestyle, they can start to talk to you more engagingly about their products. Let’s say you’re the mother of teenagers (a supermarket’s dream customer, since your trolley-full of goods racks up around £150 each week). The retailer has been watching your spend, day in, day out, for a few months, in order to make a call on where it can squeeze more money out of you. It has discovered, for example, that you buy only one type of kids’ cereal – a high-profit product. Now the retailer can write to you and ask, “Have you thought about trying our Bonzer Chocolate Twisty Loops cereal?” – and give you the incentive of extra loyalty points to buy it. You do, the kids love it, and the retailer wins an extra share of your spend – you have either switched to the pricier Loops, or now buy it on top of your regular brand. “It’s the oldest trick in the book,” says Stone, “but now retailers are writing to someone who they know doesn’t buy their product, but looks as if she could.”
This same tactic can apply to any sector. If a supermarket has a loyal olive oil-buying contingent, it will expand its range with high-profit products (herbed, super-cold, extra-pressed, beautifully bottled), and mail the oil-lovers some offers to try the new goods. All manner of exploitable peculiarities show up. Take bird feeders, which Tesco found were bought by a high concentration of serious organic shoppers. “The sales data would make you believe there is only a tiny market [for bird seed and feeders], whereas customer data can imply that, actually, there is a big market,” says Davidson.”If we stocked it more and told them [the customers] about it, would they buy it? The answer is yes, and, in fact, you can sell more elaborate bird feeders and bigger bags of bird seed.”
Retailers use loyalty card knowledge to find new markets, such as that one, plan new range rollouts and manage fresh food – and in the process save a fortune in costs. And let’s not forget the other fortune they save, in advertising, direct mail and market research costs, now that they “know” the individual customer. On top of which, they sell the analysis on to their manufacturers. “We can share what we know about which products are winners and losers,” says Davidson.
Scratch away the happy-shopping patina of these cards, then, and you wonder if a covert aim is segregation. Stone explains a possible motivation behind any loyalty scheme: “In every sector, the top 20% of customers give 80% of the profit.” No retailer would call the mechanics of their loyalty scheme discriminatory, but here, according to Stone, is how it might work. “They set a level [of service] that any customer will get, known as the ‘vanilla treatment’, and the more valuable customers will get even better treatment.” So if, for example, you are a “cherry-picker”, someone who buys all the loss leaders and nothing else, a Tesco or a Sainsbury’s might conclude that you would perhaps be better off in Lidl. They might then raise the price of the loss leader, or just stop stocking the goods only cherry-pickers buy. More likely, however, they will actively discourage the purchase of these basic goods by placing them somewhere obscure and with little shelf space. “That way,” says Stone, “you don’t have social exclusion, but at the same time you make sure you are focusing on selling the most profitable products to your best customers.”
Tesco and Sainsbury’s deny they would take advantage of data in this way. Asked if it actively discourages the purchase of cheaper goods, Tesco says simply: “No, we don’t do that.” Sainsbury’s says: “We serve 11m customers a week. We appreciate that they are different, we want to offer them different products and different ranges, and that is what we endeavour to do.”
Meanwhile, using insight from the high-spending end of the customer spectrum, a retailer might find it can get away with a price hike in premium products. “You could test it as well,” says Stone. “You could put up the price for a limited period in a store where you have a pool of such customers, and see how they react.” That reaction would, of course, be on the till receipts gathered through the loyalty card. Stone is concerned that such obvious price increases on existing goods might occur in card-providing supermarkets.
And, also likely, retailers will pursue an increase in new, expensive ranges. Such a tactic is easily confirmed by the amount of shelf space dedicated to pre-washed, pre-packed produce, as opposed to the cheaper, loose and muddy versions in supermarkets. If the goal is to get the biggest spending customers buying more expensive goods, then prices, taken as an average, will have risen. Put simply, the store will carry more costly goods and fewer low-profit basics. It seems we’re being groomed to develop more expensive tastes: one of the most interesting effects of the loyalty scheme, says Stone, is that, once customers are “addicted” to shopping with a particular retailer, they become “insensitive to price”.
The ideal, says Rick Ferguson at Colloquy magazine (“the voice of the loyalty marketing industry”), is to move your customers along a relationship chain, “from casual shoppers and disloyal consumers to real brand loyalists, where they get stuck in what we call a ‘spin cycle’ of shopping frequently and responding to offers”. That spin cycle, he adds, is “the ultimate level of profitability”. Retailers get us to that point by analysing the loyalty card database to determine who has the potential to become a better shopper.
Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco deny this. Sainsbury’s insists, “We don’t test prices via our Nectar campaign,” while Tesco says, “We do not use Clubcard data to set price. We work hard to make sure our prices are the most competitive on the high street.”
In the US, however, the process has been taken to a level that a British sense of fair play would probably not allow – consumers there are virtually strong-armed into signing up to loyalty card schemes, because a blatantly two-tier pricing system exists: if you don’t have a card, you automatically pay more. So not having a card is, ipso facto, bad behaviour.
Back in the UK, we now have a loyalty scheme that can mine multiple sources of data. Nectar firms – currently Sainsbury’s, Barclaycard, BP, Debenhams Vodafone, Adams, Thresher and Ford – do not share each other’s database information, but they do share the analysis of it, undertaken by Nectar card operators Loyalty Management UK. The company’s CEO, Rob Gierkink, says that, “without question”, the combined effect is more powerful, and he goes on to give an illuminating example of how. Sainsbury’s very best customers, he says, tend to be families, who can be spotted in other Nectar stores by, for example, high mobile phone or petrol usage. “Now we can take that information and project it across the rest of our database. We can see what looks like a big family, but who may not be going to Sainsbury’s. For the first time, retailers can say not just, ‘Who are my best customers?’ but, ‘Who look like they could be really good customers?’ ”
Stores and other Nectar members can try to attract these potential high-spend customers by mailing them tempting offers. Meanwhile, shoppers are hooked by the prospect of earning more points across a spread of stores. Indeed, the aim, as Gierkink tells it, is to get the whole family, motivated by some reward (say, a free trip to Chessington World of Adventures), watching where they shop: “You’ve got the kids in the car going, ‘How come we aren’t stopping at the BP?’ If we can get the family as a whole to save towards a goal, that is very, very powerful.”
The real masterstroke of the loyalty schemes, however, is that you volunteer to join them – by signing up to the card, you have accepted the deal. Keith Mills, chairman of Loyalty Management UK, says, “Consumers in the UK perfectly understand what is going on here and, providing we use the information with a good deal of integrity, they are perfectly willing to play the game.” Many shoppers refer to the rewards as being “generous”, so you might conclude that, overall, it’s a fair swap.
Davidson at Tesco describes the Clubcard as some kind of body politic: “We are the most democratic organisation in the UK,” he says. “Customers vote with their Clubcard every week.” By this analysis, if shoppers aren’t happy, it shows on the card data and retailers have to respond – although it looks as if your “vote” might be more significant if you are in the top 20% category of best shoppers. Far from democratising the shopping process, loyalty cards have stratified it. Perhaps a certain type of consumer buys into the idea of belonging to a club that offers rewards, irrespective of whether it means spending more per shopping trip.
But a proportion of shoppers do not want to play this game; for them, a more important consideration in deciding where to shop is price. Asda, which does not run a loyalty scheme, has just come top of the Grocer magazine’s Lowest Priced Shopping Basket list for the sixth year running. This year, the store’s market share rose from 15.5% to 16.3%, and it is now posing a serious challenge to Sainsbury’s, currently number two in the supermarket pecking order.
One concern about loyalty schemes is that so much personal information now exists in the hands of a few private corporations. Boots has a database of 15m card-holders; and, according to Gierkink, Nectar has “one of the largest email files in the UK”. Loyalty retailers typically cite long lists of “partners” who are permitted to contact you unless you state otherwise on the application form, but Gierkink speaks for most when he describes Nectar as “more careful than the data protection laws require us to be”. Indeed, you could say that it is in the retailers’ interest not to jeopardise their “relationships” with us by selling our personal data on to other companies.
But Katherine Albrecht, director of the US-based Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion And Numbering, or Caspian (nocards.org), says that the danger lies in legal or political bodies overriding the stores’ privacy agreements. “The data that supermarkets have quietly collected for nearly a decade has become a tempting target for busybodies of all stripes,” she says. According to Albrecht, loyalty card details have already been used in personal injury and family law cases in the US. In one instance, a man’s card-tracked purchase of expensive wine was used as evidence in a divorce case to show that he could afford to pay more alimony. In another, a supermarket proposed to use till receipts to prove that a man who sued after tripping over a yogurt spill in its store was an alcoholic. Data protection laws allow for such information to be disclosed if a court requests it.
Most disturbing is the prospect of ethnic profiling. After the September 11 attacks, reports Albrecht, “Federal agents reviewed the shopper card records of the men involved to create a profile of ethnic tastes and supermarket shopping patterns associated with terrorism.” So anyone who likes hummus, say, may well be developing the shopper profile of a terrorist. While there is an assumption that, in the UK, there exists an invisible line that would not get crossed in this manner, the concern in any data protection context is over “function creep”: “An information system set up for one reason can end up being used for other things,” says Simon Davies of Privacy International, a human rights group set up to monitor surveillance by governments and corporations.
More significant in relation to privacy, however, is the onset of a new form of monitoring, one being tested right now in UK stores, as Albrecht revealed to the Guardian. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), a form of electronic tagging using wireless technology, was pioneered in the US at the Auto-ID Centre in Boston, a partnership of around 100 global companies. Big grocers such as Wal-Mart (which owns Asda) and Tesco, as well as brands such as Nestlé, Pepsi and Kellogg’s, are partners of the centre, as, incidentally, is the US department of defence.
RFID is a tracking system that uses a chip around the size of a speck of dust joined to an antenna. The chip is embedded into a product and can then talk to a hand-held scanning device, currently at a range of 1-20ft. The conversation between chip and scanner reveals the item’s “electronic product code”, similar to a barcode, except that in this case the information is unique to the item.
Each product code links to its own internet database entry, which can be retrieved by the scanner – so anyone with access to both can establish what and where that product is. The ultimate goal is to assign a unique number to every product on the planet, allowing for what the Auto-ID Centre describes as a “physically linked world”. In this world, everything will be tracked and identified. The main obstacle to this vision is financial – the centre is working to bring down the cost of the tags from 50 cents to five cents apiece, or less.
The chip-pushers claim that RFID tagging is useful in a strictly supply-side context. Retailers throw away money by losing stock in the supply chain, or by not replacing stock fast enough on shelves – and where fresh food is involved, tracking products helps avoid waste. To this end, some retailers have already tagged pallets and containers, so that the product makers and traders can track stock as it moves from factory to storeroom to shelf. So far, that’s fascinating only if you care about the supply mechanics of retail.
But if the ultimate idea is to tag every sold thing, items could be “seen” in your possession. And that’s where privacy campaigners start to worry. Because then you could be telling anyone who has the right kind of scanning device – from burglars to the government – what you have bought, where from, how much it cost, and anything else that might be added to an item’s database entry, such as who bought it. In this scenario, individuals could be identified by what they wear. On top of which, retailers could monitor your behaviour in relation to their goods. Did you try on a garment? How long did you hold that product? Are you trying to steal? Now does that sound a bit like surveillance? Now would it worry you if this technology were already being used at several of your favourite stores?
Alan Robinson, manager at the Tesco store on Newmarket Street, Cambridge, seems excited about this store’s current trials of RFID tags in Gillette Mach3 razorblades. Speaking to Smart Labels Analyst magazine in April this year, he said: “We are cooperating with this trial in every way we can – we would like to be a test bed for many more trials of this kind.” He adds: “We haven’t had a single customer ask what the tag is doing in their packet of razors!” Notoriously subject to theft (small, expensive and easily resold), these blades were tagged by Gillette, which earlier this year ordered 500m radio-frequency ID tags from the aptly named Alien Technology Corp. At the Tesco Cambridge store, reports the magazine, a camera trained on the Gillette blade shelf, and triggered by the tags, captures a photo of each customer who removes a Mach3 pack. Another photo is taken at the checkout and security staff compare the two images to ensure they always have a pair.
A spokesman for Tesco confirmed that this set-up is in operation. He says: “Generally in retailing, razorblades are stolen more than other products, but that is not why we are doing the trial. We have plenty of security measures in place to stop things being stolen. [This trial] is not to do with security or theft, it is a supply chain trial.” According to the spokesman,”there are certainly not any privacy concerns” in relation to these tags. He adds that there is plenty of in-store signage indicating the supermarket’s use of CCTV cameras.
Still, customers might not infer from this information that these cameras are being used to take a digital photo of them each time they lift a Gillette razorblade from the store’s shelf – it only takes one to prompt the camera – and again when they present the pack at the checkout. Tesco says that the photos are “temporarily stored”, but does not specify for how long. However, Smart Labels Analyst magazine explains that this system enables the store to “blacklist certain shoppers and keep an eye on them”. In his interview with the magazine, Alan Robinson recounts an occasion when his Cambridge store was able to show the police a photograph of a shoplifter in the act of removing two packets of razors from the shelf: “The police were completely flabbergasted, having never seen anything like it in their lives.”
part 2
Tesco is also testing RFID tags in its DVD range at the Extra store in Sandhurst, Berkshire, in a trial that has received funding from the Home Office. Under its Chipping of Goods initiative, the government is backing eight such trials in a theft-busting context. Asda has just completed a similar tagging trial – in this case on CDs at two of its stores in Nottingham.
Chip implementation seems to be moving in stages. The first was to tag the pallets and containers that carry products. In the UK, Marks & Spencer has already tested three and a half million RFID tags on the plastic trays that transport its food produce to the shelf. Sainsbury’s, reports the US National Retail Federation magazine, is “tracking prepared foods throughout the supply chain using RFID”, while Woolworths is extending to October its pilot of RFID in its supply chains. The next phase in tag implementation came with trials on theft-prone products, such as DVDs and razorblades – a murky and seemingly opaque development but, you might say, partly alleviated by the fact that the tags are on the product packaging and can therefore be discarded.
Now, however, the tags are inching their way even deeper into our products. Speaking at the RFID Journal Live! conference in Chicago in June, Keith Mahoney of Marks & Spencer reportedly said, “Item level tagging is the holy grail.” The store’s aim, said the RFID Journal website, is this autumn to start rolling out what is thought to be the largest clothes tagging project in the world. Mahoney, who is logistics controller for food rather than clothes, can nonetheless reveal: “For the trial, I believe it is going to be on the cardboard swing ticket that is attached to the garment. That’s not where it would end up; it would probably end up in the label in the garment.”
Back in March, Philips, which makes RFID tags, announced that Benetton intended to sew 15m such tags into its Sisley clothing range. The chain was deluged with complaints from customers, and campaigners argued that they would “rather go naked than wear clothes with spy chips”. Benetton issued statements that the tag plans were purely at investigation stage, although its marketing director, Mauro Benetton, reportedly told RFID Journal in June that, if those investigations are successful, the company still plans to go ahead.
Soon after this backlash, the RFID industry started talking about “kill switches” that would, if the customer wanted, deactivate tags at the checkout stage. This, along with assurances that all RFID-tagged goods will be marked as such, has become the main means to quell privacy fears. But do we trust this industry to disable its tags? Katherine Albrecht at Caspian doesn’t. “Why would I take the kill switch seriously?” she asks. “I have no way of knowing if they have done it or not, I have to take their word for it.”
And even if all chips are indisputably killed beyond resurrection at the checkout, the tagging industry, when engaged in conversations with itself, is still raving about the prospect of tracking customers while they are still in the store. Among the benefits of RFID, the Auto-ID Centre’s website cites this: “Readers on the store’s shelves will provide the first extensive real-time view of customer behaviour in the store. By recording how often an item is picked up, purchased or put back, retailers and their suppliers will have instant feedback on promotions… providing the means to better tailor promotions to a specific market segment.” In an article entitled “Will RFID help win customer loyalty? We think so!” Texas Instruments, an RFID company, suggests a possible scenario if a consumer carries the tag in a purse or wallet (implying a loyalty card): “The technology has the potential to tell retailers exactly who’s in their store at any given moment while offering full purchase histories for each shopper.” According to RFID Journal, plans to realise this potential are already under way. In April this year, IBM announced it would test RFID tags in bank cards, so that customers can be identified (and, you might extrapolate, treated according to their status) the minute they enter the bank.
Judging by these enthusiastic comments, it looks as if shopper-watching is emphatically on the RFID agenda. According to Albrecht, this is hardly surprising, given that there now exists a retail culture of getting to know the consumer, as initiated by the loyalty card scheme. “Loyalty cards drove the whole push to say, ‘We must know everything about you.’ RFID is the logical endpoint,” she says. “While the loyalty card enables you to find out who is buying what, with RFID you can clinch the deal and follow the product into people’s homes.” Albrecht adds that, potentially, the data in product tags could be updated at the checkout to include customer details. “Having products linked to people’s identities is a very real danger.”
Outside the UK, products are already being linked to people. In Rheinberg, Germany, loyalty card-linked tagging is central to the Metro “Future Store”, which opened in April. You pick up a keyboard-sized computer at the entrance and swipe your loyalty card through it – this activates a list of items you like to buy, lets you know about special offers and rings up purchases while you shop, saving a wait at the checkout. At Prada’s Epicentre store in New York, reports Texas Instruments, which supplied the technology, “RFID smart labels identify customers… and link individual shoppers with information about their selections before and after they make a purchase.”
The chips are in both clothes and loyalty cards. Commenting on the trials in June 2002, Colloquy magazine said that using these two sources of data could provide “perhaps the most in-depth profile of their customers ever conceived”. Of the many advantages of compiling such a profile, one is that the store knows what Prada garments you already own as well as what you try on. While this is just one example in one very chichi store, some manufacturers, says Albrecht, are openly talking about embedding RFID chips in UK loyalty cards. She says that, at the RFID Journal Live! conference, Tom Coyle, of RFID company Matrics, was promoting such a fusion. “He showed me the card and said Tesco was extremely interested in it.”
Loyalty card-holders often say that, while they aren’t that happy about being monitored by supermarkets, they have fallen into a honey trap. Our usage of these cards is no indication that we like them; in research carried out for Asda, 96% said they would prefer lower prices to cards. This survey notes: “Shoppers know there is no such thing as a ‘free lunch’.”
Safeway abandoned its 7m-strong loyalty scheme in 2000, saying it would pass on the saved £60m operational costs to its customers in price cuts. Ditching the card, Safeway found, caused no adverse affects: “We have 9m customers who shop with us regularly. I don’t think most of them want a personal relationship with us,” says Kevin Hawkins, Safeway’s communications director.
Yet, so far, it seems that public response to the loyalty trade-off is typically British: as long as it doesn’t actually poison our kids or cost us money, we’ll accept it with quiet resignation. It looks as though that might also be the case with item tagging. When the Auto-ID Centre investigated public response to RFID in several countries, it surmised that our reaction was negative but apathetic: “While consumers expressed concern, they seemed to resign themselves to the inevitability of it.” Which is curious because it is as consumers – more so than as voters, say, or as parents or workers – that we have the loudest voice, the greatest scope to be demanding.
According to Albrecht, the ball is now on a UK pitch. “Wake up, England!” she says. “You guys are the frontline. You need to fight this to stop it happening in the rest of the world.” Such a fight, she suggests, could start by demanding more information and more security guarantees on RFID tagging before it becomes a feature of our retail landscape. Or it could start by questioning whether a discount on your favourite brand of butter or a free trip to the zoo is worth the cost of being spied on. Or, to begin with, it might just start with a very simple statement: “No, I don’t have a sodding loyalty card!”
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003