What Retailers Really Want

Yes, they would like to find ways to encourage you to buy stuff, but legitimate retailers understand that their relationship with their customers is more important than one sale.
Published: June 1, 2009

By Mark Roberti

I had the privilege to lead a Leadership Forum at the RFID Journal—AAFA Apparel & Footwear Summit. This was a closed-door meeting in which leading apparel retailers and suppliers discussed the business benefits of RFID, as well as the obstacles to adoption. The bad press from irresponsible journalists who swallow the nonsense put out by religious opponents of RFID clearly has created concerns in the apparel and footwear sector.

To encourage an open discussion, I agreed not to publish specifics of what was said during the forum, or who said what. But I can reveal that the privacy discussion was very interesting. I asked if it made sense to try to track people in stores to sell them items based on previous purchases. One retailer said honestly that it would be great, but that you just can’t do it unless the person has opted in. The relationship is more important than any one sale, and you don’t want to blow the relationship by having customers find out you’ve been tracking them without their knowledge.

This is a point journalists writing about RFID and privacy never seem to get. Retailers have to find ways of selling to customers that customers accept. It’s not legitimate retailers that are spamming people. Why? Because as much as they’d love to bombard customers and potential customers with news about their products, spamming would cost them more in loyalty than they would gain in sales from the e-mail.

I asked if anyone thought it made sense to embed tags in clothes. The resounding answer was “no.” Not one person in the room thought it made sense until the technology has matured to the point where customers have some control over the transponder-that is, until you can permanently deactivate the tag or change its serial number or protect your own privacy in some way. The participants also felt that customers would need to be comfortable with the technology and feel they benefited from it before embedding tags in clothes would make business sense.

Some RFID opponents portray themselves as the good guys battling evil corporate monsters, but no one I met at the Apparel & Footwear Summit had any horns. Most of the people I talked to were sensitive to privacy concerns. After all, they are consumers as well. (One person from an RFID company that has been targeted by privacy advocates was bemoaning the fact that he started getting inundated with direct mail for baby products within weeks of his wife giving birth to triplets.)

But that’s not why I’m not overly concerned about potential abuses of RFID technology. I’m not overly concerned because I know that companies will do what’s in their financial interests. No legitimate retailer that has invested millions of dollars in developing a brand is going to sully that brand by surreptitiously tracking customers. And no legitimate retailer is going to risk losing customers for life by infringing on their privacy for the opportunity to try to sell them something they might or might not want to by.