Friday, October 2, 2009

Retail Webcam: Transparency or TMI?

Asda, the Wal-Mart-owned discount chain in the UK, has introduced webcams into some of its production facilities and backrooms. Take a look here for updated views of the dairy where Asda milk is processed and other areas not normally in full view of shoppers.

The idea, says CEO Andy Bond, is to demonstrate that Asda is run "by the consumer for the consumer", and "there is no 'behind the scenes.'" Like a restaurant with an open kitchen to show off its cleanliness and quality, Asda wants to use its webcams to demonstrate transparency. You can see Andy Bond discussing his vision of "democratic consumerism" here.

Now that I've watched bags of carrots moving up and down the conveyor belts on Asda's carrotcam, I can see some of the appeal. If cameras capture the view 24/7, shoppers feel more reassured about the journey their carrots take from field to package to store. These days, consumers are asking more questions about where their food comes from, so this kind of transparency is a good thing.

Yet I can't help wondering: Are such webcams increasing transparency or are they delivering TMI (you know, too much information)?

Is there another way to be transparent without training a webcam on the minutiae of everyday operations? Do I, as a consumer, want to be a quality-assurance inspector for the stores? Not me. Either I trust the store to do its job properly or I don't.

At the same time, I applaud all efforts toward increasing transparency and wish more companies would be more open about their products, processes and policies. I won't be watching carrotcam, but it's good to know that somebody can watch.

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