Growers and garden centre owners say they are worried about the implications in terms of costs and logistics of the introduction of the new "uncopiable" radio-frequency identification (RFID) electronic tags made by IBM. Container Centralen is introducing them in January to safeguard the single European system of Danish trolleys, which transports plants around the continent.
Container Centralen Danish trolleys are currently used by 22,000 businesses to ship plants around Europe. On 10 January, the system, which has been open to abuse through theft and the introduction of inferior trolleys, will be safeguarded by the RFID tags. These are read by a scanner (handheld or gate) and information stored in the tags can be integrated into Container Centralen's IT systems to track and trace them.
But the new security locks for Danish trolleys are "potentially a huge problem" for growers, says the managing director of one of the UK's largest wholesale growers Andrew Richardson of Johnsons of Whixley, a member of the HTA ornamentals committee.
He says retail suppliers are also "petrified about the effect these changes could have next spring at the peak of the garden centre season. We asked the HTA to speak to Container Centralen and to put across our concerns because we, the growers, understood how the system works. Unfortunately the thousands of retailers out there just didn't understand how the system works - they don't understand the ramifications of growers not being able to swap trolleys as we had in the past."
Richardson adds: "The worry for all of us is that the look of the tag will be copied immediately. The only way that you can tell it is a proper tag is to buy a radio scanner to check each tag. That means that every garden centre must have a scanner to check that the incoming trolleys are in the system.
"We, as the nurseries, must have scanners on site checking the trolleys are on the system. On top of that, every delivery vehicle must have a mobile scanner to check every Container Centralen trolley before accepting it. At Johnsons, I estimate that we will need between 12 and 15 scanners at a cost of between £500 and £1,000 depending on the scanner.
"We are petrified that next spring, when we deliver orders, retailers won't have RFID-tagged trolleys. The main retail supply nurseries are on the HTA group and all of us have said we have to protect our investment in trolleys and we won't drop off trolleys unless we can swap them for an RFID-tagged trolley in the system. We are concerned that when we arrive at a retailer not in the system, the only option we will have is to unload every trolley. We don't have time to do this - the truck could be doing 10 deliveries that day."
Denmark-based Container Centralen chief executive Tonny Gravesen says he is doing all he can to reassure growers: "RFID can't be cloned - that is guaranteed by IBM. If you violate IBM stuff and are caught, you will be more afraid of IBM than of Container Centralen."
"We have been at all the trade shows where we ought to be and had meetings with customers, groups and associations. We've been direct-mailing three times this autumn saying: 'Prepare yourself.' But it is a huge task to communicate to 22,000 customers all over Europe. We can never do enough."
He adds: "Copies have been around for years. Outside the system they are okay, but if they get in by mistake or fraud they are free-riders in the system. I don't believe there will be another system. You need 60 depots throughout Europe and also repair shops."
Gravesen adds: "Tesco and Wilkinsons are supporting this and telling their suppliers to use the new system. They can see the benefit. But if a retailer hasn't signed up, if I was a supplier I would talk to them about how I can make sure my containers and RFID get back to me. It is the same as you would do with pallets. These are normal trade supply-chain issues."
He continues: "We all know the system is fantastic and we need to protect it, or it will blow up the container pool in our faces - everyone who has been investing for 30 years, and that is not Container Centralen because we just landlord the pool owned by the users.
"There aren't many people in Europe who don't know that one common high-quality plant distribution system is good. The system wouldn't have been around 30 years otherwise. But some people are cheating the system. There is a lot of low-quality equipment around. If we want to get back to where we started, then we all have to do our share.
"What's the alternative? In an open system you don't get anything back. In the USA, we went in five years ago and saw hundreds of systems and it was a big mess, with the biggest mess at the retailers. In one or two years no-one will talk about the tags any more. It is a big step now, especially for smaller growers. But it is just an electronic barcode. We are doing our utmost to help, but you can never do enough."
HTA TAG SUPPORTERS
HTA group members that have agreed to operate the system in a proper way
to protect their investment:
- John Woods
- Liss Forest