| There are thousands of web sites
calling for boycotts, and one that appears to have lots of effort in its
development is calling for a boycott of Gillette products claiming the company
is taking photos of consumers who pick up their razors to make sure they pay
for the item at checkout to avoid in-store theft.
site, www.BoycottGillette.com, also claims that Gillette puts microscopic chips
in their products to track each products location in the stores. The web site
detailed how Gillette allegedly tracks the consumer in stores, including
photographing the consumer. These photos on the web site show sensors under the
Gillette provided shelving as well as electronic devices inside the individual
Boycott Watch examined these claims for
accuracy and to determine if the claims are based in any fact. We began by
examining the web site, and then we called Gillette to get their perspective on
the technologies being used and the web site in question. We spoke to Paul Fox,
Director of Global External Relations, who explained the technology in
The first item of the boycotters concern is
a claim that consumer photos are being taken while shopping. The web site shows
an actual unaltered photograph of a Gillette razor display, as confirmed by
Gillette, with a sensor on the underside that is claimed to be a camera.
According to Gillette, the device was a pilot test undertaken by Tesco, which
is one of the largest retailers in the UK. Tesco conducted a field test using
Gillette products to determine how much product they had on the shelf and how
quickly was it being removed. The test was conducted to determine how
technology could be used to track items on shelves in general, not just
Gillette products, for the purpose of determining how much of any product needs
to be ordered and to keep the shelves fully stocked on a daily basis. The
device is, according to Gillette, a counting sensor and not a camera.
Considering the placement of such shelves, the
device, if it were a camera, would take lots of photos of people's chests and
bellies, not their faces. It would also be very expensive to take and store
digital photographs of every consumer. The stores would then have to spend lots
of time and money to track and compare photographs, none of which would
indicate if someone left a product on a shelf in another isle. The labor cost
alone for this effort, not to mention the hardware, would be greater that the
total retail cost of the items sold, therefore would not be financially
practical. Boycott Watch therefore does not believe the devices are actually
Keeping shelves stocked is a major concern
of retailers. Supermarkets, for example, receive shipments daily to keep their
shelves stocked based upon sales recorded at he register. One factor not
included in the total count of each item sold at registers is what is known in
retail as shrinkage. Shrinkage is the total amount of product lost due to a
number of factors including glass jars breaking, a retail package being cut by
a stock clerk while cutting a case open, damage on the shelves by any number of
reasons including customers opening a package of cookies for a taste, and the
number one cause of shrinkage - theft. Regular inventory checks are used to
correct shelf counts for items not recorded as sold at a cash register, but
having to pay people to physically count each item on shelves in expensive and
usually inaccurate, but necessary to maintain full shelves for consumers. The
concept behind the test was to determine if an automated shelf counting system
would work. Since Gillette itself did not conduct the test, we were unable to
acquire the results. No testing of this nature was conducted in the US
according to Gillette.
A second claim of the
boycotters is that Gillette uses a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system
to track where each individual item is in each store at all times. RFID systems
have been around for a few years to assist in tracking, but the technology is
still in its infancy and too expensive to implement at a per-item level.
RFID tags have no power of their own, so they can't
self-transmit a signal to identify its own whereabouts. Each RFID tag has a
unique serial-number, and when the tag is within a few feet of the appropriate
sensor, the tag receives a signal that activates it; it then bleeps back its
unique serial number by using its own low-power radio transmitter. This is
similar to a student responding 'present' when the teacher calls the attendance
rolls. Just as with classroom attendance, the RFID tag announces it is present,
but not its exact location. The exact student seat in a classroom and the exact
shelf location of the RFID tag is not reported.
Remember the black and white film of the bridge that
wobbled in the wind and eventually collapsed? RFID essentially works on the
same concept but on a smaller scale. With a specific wind, the bridge started
to oscillate just as the small electronic RFID device does when it gets near a
special sensor. The bridge reacted by wobbling and so does the RFID chip, but
in this case, the RFID chip vibrating can be picked up by a sensor including
its distinctive pre-programmed response, which is the serial number of the tag.
Once the tag is away from the reader, it can not transmit.
Another analogy is a bar code printed on a retail box
- it too has no power, it only enables communication when someone passes a
scanner over it. The bar code sensors display the bar code which is translated
into a generic item ID number without a serial number. The RFID tag is
different in that is does contain a serial number. The identification principal
applies to the RFID technology except you don't have to physically pick the
item up since RFID works using proximity sensors.
are a long-long way from the technology being used on a per item level. The
reasons are: 1) the tags cost a little less than 10 cents each, so at that
price the tag is only viable at a case or pallet level. If you put those tags
at the item level, it would be price prohibitive since that would be billions
of dollars of added expense, not to mention the cost of retooling the
manufacturing equipment. Thus, if implemented, the average shopping cart of
food would cost about 7% more, something consumers would not accept, and 2)
people are not ready to accept the benefits of such technology. Can it work?
Can every object be tagged? Can you tag a gumball or donut? Will consumers
trust such a system?
This type of technology is a
major step forward and implementing technological leaps takes time for
acceptance, especially in an age where people are worried about being spied on
by technology. The cost hurdle is still the major factor though - full RFID
implementation can only work if every retail item is tagged, and tagging small
items such as gum and candy bars would increase the item price by 25% or more
overnight at today's cost.
Installing such devices in
every product by every manufacturer would require the retooling of all
manufacturers' equipment and therefore would be cost prohibitive and probably
rejected by a great number of manufacturers. Such processes would have to be
phased in, and the cost of adding the tracking systems to retail stores could
run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per store, and require tens of
thousands of dollars a year to maintain. With such high costs, the systems
involved would cost much more than the savings realized from shrinkage, thus
limiting demand for such systems.
Gillette, this technology has had limited tests and is still in its embryonic
stage. No Gillette products in the US have ever or do contain an individual
"The only time our individual products
had RDIF tags was the in limited field trials undertaken by 2 retails, one in
Germany by the name of Metro and the one in the UK, both of which asked
Gillette for help to establish if the technology could be used in a retail
shelf level. Gillette's focus as a company is to determine whether this
technology can be used on pallets and cases, not on individual items" said Fox.
In summary, the technology as claimed on the boycott
Gillette web site are inaccurate at best. Although the technology may be viable
in the future, it is currently science fiction only because of the costs
involved to fully implement it, but that may change in the next few years.