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What’s Really Going On At Walmart?

Submitted by on July 29, 2010 – 10:11 am2 Comments

Retail giant Walmart has long been respected and feared for its highly effective and seemingly relentless strategy of cutting costs in order to lower prices. Of course, the multinational corporation has also gained several enemies and has drawn ire from small business owners and patronizers alike because competition (and survival) are made nearly impossible by its presence. These days, Walmart’s latest innovation to the world of retail is making privacy advocates wonder if Big Brother will be watching us as we travel up and down the aisles.

Walmart is looking to revolutionize the way they keep track of inventory by using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. While these tags have been in use for quite some time to track large shipments of multiple items, Walmart will be using them on individual clothing and underwear items starting next month. Seems like no big deal so far, right?

The RFID tags Walmart plans to use will be readable using a wand-like device which can read the tags from quite a distance away in one single wave, allowing store employees to instantly determine the amount of any particular item held in inventory or stocked on the shelves. The retail giant expects this to help with employee theft as well as customer service. However, the problem is these tags can be scanned from long distances; many are nervous about what could happen if the scanners fall into the wrong hands.

Compounding the issue? Driver’s licenses in several states (especially border states) already use the technology, prompting some to think that marketing companies—or criminals—may use the information to track purchases and match them to Walmart customers or, worse yet, combine them with credit card information.

Needless to say, this issue has caused quite a stir. Walmart has already begun to do damage control, telling customers not to worry and posting signs to educate customers about the tags.

Here are a few facts about the tags, which can hopefully put some of these fears to rest.

RFID tags can only be read from about eight feet away, so the idea of an identity thief scanning one’s house or trash from the street is highly unlikely. Also, the tag’s information will not be available forever, as the tags operate on batteries, which eventually stop working. It should also be noted that water and metal interfere with the signal, making it difficult for the tags to be scanned outside of a store environment. The tags will only consist of information relevant to Walmart, such as item number and other inventory/bookkeeping codes. No personal information will be stored on the removable tags.

In the future, it is believed the RFID tags may bring about the end of the checkout line, allowing all items to be scanned at once and credited to an account, giving customers the opportunity to check out at a kiosk or via a mobile phone or similar handheld device. The tags may also allow shoppers who are trying on clothes to locate items in other available sizes and colors and request to have the proper items brought to the dressing room.

With Walmart being such a leader in cost reduction and efficiency, you can bet they’ll be at the forefront of these and other technological advances when they become available. You can also bet that other retail chains will be taking notes and following suit.

Now that we know our identities are safe (or at least not any less safe than usual), there are a few other issues to pay attention to. If future advances with the technology may replace checkout lines for kiosks, will a significant number of blue-collar jobs be replaced or eliminated as well? Seriously, if devices can one day locate our purchases and allow us to make transactions, what need will there be for store clerks or cashiers? Should we be more cautious with our use of and dependence upon technology, or are all technological advances worth their weight in gold?

Obviously, we appreciate and benefit from an increased use of technology on many levels. We are more connected to each other than ever before, we can make decisions and do work hundreds of times faster, and we can save lots of money due to the efficiency. However, it probably wouldn’t hurt to balance electronics and machines with the amazing handiwork that is humanity.

We should hope that corporate America will realize the wisdom in the above statement before the human race makes itself obsolete.

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