Albert Heijn RFID epiphany

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.

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Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.

8 thoughts on “Albert Heijn RFID epiphany”

  1. 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…

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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’.

  7. 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…

  8. 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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