I was standing in line at the local Albert Heijn1 the other day and had a futurist’s ‘epiphany’. I had three items in my basket. The couple in front of me had a shopping cart full of stuff. I had an empty stomach and was tired from a long day’s work. They were taking their time placing their items on the short conveyor belt. The cashier took her time scanning each individual item. The couple had a lot of stuff and only a few bags to put their stuff in. Did I mention this was taking a looong time?
I wasn’t being impatient though, I used the time to let my thoughts wander. For some reason my associative brain became occupied with RFID. Many of the items in the Albert Heijn shelves have RFID tags in them already. They use those to track inventory. Soon, all of the items will be tagged with these chips. That’ll make it easy to restock stuff. But it occurred to me that it might make the situation I was in at that moment (standing there waiting for a large amount of items to be moved from a cart, scanned and packed in bags to be placed back in the cart again) history.
Imagine driving your overflowing shopping cart through a stall and having all the items read simultaneously. If you’d wanted to get rid of the friendly cashier you could put automatic gates on the cash register and have them open once all items were paid for (by old-fashioned debit or credit card or newfangled RFID enabled payment token). Walk up to the gate, swipe your token past a reader and have the gate open, no matter how many items you have with you.
No more checking the receipt for items that were mistakenly scanned twice (or not scanned at all, if you’re that honest). No more waiting for people with too many stuff in their cart that they don’t really need. And no more underpaid pubescent cashiers to ruin your day with their bad manners!
Actually, would that ever happen? It would take a large amount of trust from everyone involved. There is a lot of trust implicitly involved in the whole exchange. Handing your stuff one after the other to an actual human being and having that person scan them is a very physical, tangible way to get a sense of what you’re paying for, and that you’re getting your money’s worth. With completely automated RFID-enabled shopping, that would be lost.
It’s a banal, pedestrian and simple example of how this stuff could change your everyday life, I know, but something to think about, nonetheless.
1. Albert Heijn is the largest super market chain in the Netherlands.
8 thoughts on “Albert Heijn RFID epiphany”
What do you mean sir? Am i not allowed to shop with a leaden bag? No aluminum foil is allowed around the articles? And yes i always carry a large battery pack with these coils? You can do all kinds of usefull stuff with those coils…
Oh RFID you say, i see…
Yes. Shoplifting gets a whole new twist when RFID goes big. I imagine shoplifters becoming more like hackers/crackers, physically cracking the system to get out a few cans of beer and a bag of crisps.
I always get a bit nervous when RFID is being discussed, it’s easy to see useful purposes for the technology, it has similarities with “barcodes” for instance. But readers for these things can be implemented everywhere and read out the data anywhere anytime without you knowing it… Add to that that those tags already can be miniaturized to be too small to really notice.
In short: I guess the biggest problem of the system is that it is not really transparent by nature. Which is also one of it’s strengths.
Oh well.. i don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.
Yeah Jacco you’re right to get nervous when thinking of the invisible and pervasive nature of RFID. Sadly not many ‘regular people’ (non-geeks) are aware of the stuff that’s on their doorstep. When designing these future systems, ethics comes into play heavily. You should check out Everyware, which discusses themes of ethics and transparency in relation to the design of ubiquitous computing.
Nevertheless, I think there’s no “imagine” here. This will be reality in a few years. The advantages are huge and privacy is on the losing side of our technology driven society.
I’m afraid you’re right Tom. I’m working on a piece that’s more or less a call to arms for designers to get into the ubicomp arena before it’s too late (basically an endorsement of Greenfield’s book that I mentioned in the previous comment). There needs to be some counterweight to the push from industry and the intelligence community to adopt RFID an related technologies. I for one don’t think politicians will be the ones to do it; just look at the eager way they are adopting surveillance of civilians, all in the name of ‘security’.
Apart from the RFID privacy discussion (tags are still automatically disables as soon you leave the shopping area), you remind me of some experiments Albert Heijn did some years ago. Customers were able to self scan their groceries.
Don’t know about the status of this idea…
I just read the article you link to, Iskander. Of course having clients scan the barcodes of products has a number of drawbacks that use of RFID would eliminate. Perhaps the group that was working on the plan described in that article is making the shift to RFID as we speak?
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