Boycott Watch
March 22, 2004
Boycott of Gillette products is based on
misleading assumptions and unfounded conclusions
   Summary: A web site is calling for the boycott of Gillette products based upon claims that the company is spying on consumers. Boycott Watch investigated the claim and believes the web site is making misleading assumptions resulting in unfounded conclusions.
   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.

   The site,, 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 products.

   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 question.

   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 cameras.

   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.

   We 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.

   According to 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 product code.

   "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.

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 ©2004 Boycott Watch