The X-Ray of Retail

[The Infrastructural City Blogiscussion: Deborah Richmond’s “Consumers Gone Wild: Distribution”]

[an Amazon distribution center, or ‘fulfillment’ center]

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on Wal-Mart’s latest experiments in tracking merchandise with radio frequency identification (RFIT) technology:

“Wal-Mart Stores Inc. plans to roll out sophisticated electronic ID tags to track individual pairs of jeans and underwear…Starting next month, the retailer will place removable “smart tags” on individual garments that can be read by a hand-held scanner. Wal-Mart workers will be able to quickly learn, for instance, which size of Wrangler jeans is missing, with the aim of ensuring shelves are optimally stocked and inventory tightly watched. If successful, the radio-frequency ID tags will be rolled out on other products at Wal-Mart’s more than 3,750 U.S. stores.”

The technology itself isn’t particularly new, as it is used in a variety of applications, such as libraries, bookstores, pets, humans, automatized payment sensors for toll roads, etc.  But Wal-Mart’s full integration of the radio tags and their associated data mining is new.  In line with thier pioneering embrace of the barcode decades ago, the company continues to advance product tracking technology in retail space (and according to its skeptics, beyond the retail domain).  This value-added, real-time product data has a direct effect on the architecture of their distribution centers, creating an ever-more synchronized choreography of efficiency between the two.

As discussed in Consumers Gone Wild, Wal-mart’s product tracking highlights state of the art “control spaces of consumer constructs”.  Or as mammoth put it in their review of the chapter, RFID can be seen as a command infrastructure in the ‘spatial constructs of distribution” …[which in order include] the Ports, the Alameda Corridor, “super-distribution centers”, freeways and eighteen-wheelers, warehouses and “big box” retail outlets, [freeways, again] and finally to the home as a warehouse for consumer goods.’

The architecture of big box retail and their distribution centers are relatively simple and homogenized due to their programmatic function as ‘conduits for flows of materials and goods.’ Complexity arises in the inseparable merging of the sentient-like command systems which manage and predict these flows and the collection of relatively inert physical infrastructures that enable them (port, highway, etc.)  —  a massive, 24-7, three-dimensional, multi-site Tetris game of mobile widget placement that never ends.  Currently Wal-Mart is planning on using passive RFID tags.  But imagine the added data mining capacity in the small jump to render the tags active, meaning that the radio tags could could also send out signals, similar to experiments in trash tracking at MIT).

[Internal traffic in Sam’s club. Source]

Like the logistical operations of L.A.’s traffic controller’s cameras monitoring their 18 wheeler fleet on the highways, Wal-mart does the same thing in the internal traffic microcosm of its big boxes – both products and consumers.  The control systems are always trying to improve their intelligence (in the military connotation of the word), not just by tracking individual items, but also by mapping patterns they can affect – such as an instant snap shot of the constellation of items in a shopping cart, or movements of desire throughout their aisled architecture.  And like highway traffic, the building blocks of control infrastructures consistently seems to occur at the embodied scale of individual choice and the hand held scanner.


  1. ‘Fulfillment center’. Hah — that is excellent. Hopefully they were well aware of the pun when they named it.

  2. Wow is this bigger than WalMart?

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