One of the more aggravating aspects of shopping, at least at a brick and mortar store, is waiting in the checkout line. It’s one of those situations in which seconds can be like minutes and minutes like hours. Everybody remembers the number of times they find themselves in a long line, having finished shopping, with only one or two registers open. Of course, at least with bar codes, the clerk is able to just scan every item and not have to ring them up. Unless, as is often the case, the item doesn’t scan for some reason.
All of that may change in the near future. A technology called smart labels or Radio Frequency Identification tags may change the shopping experience in more profound ways than the bar code did in the 1970s and 1980s.
An RFID tag consists of three parts. There is a small microprocessor that contains the information on the product. There is a small, copper coil that acts as an antenna, transmitting information on the product to a reader, which in turn is connected to a computer network. Finally, there is that encapsulating material-glass or polymer-which encloses the chip and the coil. RFID tags are already used to track things like cattle and box cars from trains.
RFID tags are currently expensive, ranging from one dollar to a passive read only tag to two hundred dollars for a sophisticated, read/write tag. The cost is because of the silicon in chip and the cost of manufacturing the coil antenna. Research is ongoing to create RFID tags that will cost only a penny, which is necessary for them to be cost effective enough to replace bar codes.
When RFID tags are created that are cheap enough and have enough range to be read by the internet, retailers will able to track every product they sell from the store shelf to the trash can/recycle bin.
The first thing this technology would change is the shopping experience. Instead of going through a checkout line, the shopper would only have to carry ones purchases through the front door of the store where a reader would automatically tally up the purchase and deduct the cost from ones bank account or credit card.
Not only will the store know exactly what products a shopper has purchased and how many, but so will the manufacturer and distributor. The knowledge of which and how many products are being sold will make tracking supplies of those products easier, more automatic, and cheaper, helping them keep up with demand for products. Also, the knowledge of who is buying which products would be a great tool in marketing. Shoppers would be sent promotions for special sales of products that they tend to buy.
The technology would help the shopper at home as well. Let’s say one has bought a gallon of milk. A refrigerator with a RFID reader would able to keep track of the expiration date of the milk, warning one when the milk is about to spoil. Once one has drunk the milk and tossed the carton in the trash/recycle the smart refrigerator will be able to remind one that one needs to buy more milk.
Of course there are a couple of technical problems that have to be addressed. One is what to do if the RFID malfunctions, somehow, and is not detected by a reader. Another is how to make RFIDs shoplifter proof.
Besides the technical problems involved in making RFID technology available, there is the question of public acceptance. Will people be comfortable knowing that everything they purchase will be known instantly by corporations. And there is the question of how much of this information should be kept private from the government? In this era in which the concerns of national security often conflict with the desire for privacy, these and other questions will have to be answered as the new technology becomes available.