Watching You Shop
The mannequin in the store window stares blankly ahead as shoppers look at the clothes it is dressed in and contemplate a purchase. One shopper makes some comments. “It’s nice. I wonder if they have my size.” Another takes a few steps inside the store to see where these particular clothes might be found. Having shopped here before, perhaps a “frequent customer” deal is in order?
This typical retail shopping scenario has repeated itself millions of times all over the world over the last one hundred years, but now there is something different: the mannequin might not be as sightless as it has been in the past; there is a good chance that it is now watching the shoppers as they observe its clothes. There is a good chance, too, that it is listening to what the shoppers are saying, tuning into key words, assessing the shopper’s emotional reaction to the clothing: Interest? Fascination? Revulsion? Desire? The mannequin reports this data back to the store’s main desk, priming the sales staff to react and prepare a personalized sales pitch should the customer enter.
The other customer who took a few steps into the store might – or might not – be aware that the store is watching, too. Not just in terms of passive security cameras, but also through active facial recognition technology designed to identify both favored regular customers as well as infamous known shoplifters. The shopper’s smartphone, too, might broadcast information to the store’s computers about what was purchased last time, preferences, clothing size, payment styles, and wish lists.
All of these techniques are slowly and quietly creeping into the retail space as the Internet of Everything continues to explore new ways to leverage data and connections in the interest of greater customer experience.
Spurred on in part by the struggle with online stores, bricks-and-mortar retailers seek new and innovative ways to gain a customer’s trust, loyalty and shopping dollar. Facial recognition appears to be one area in which this might have positive impact. Companies such as NEC and FaceFirst now provide facial recognition technology that creates a topology of every individual face and compares it against a database of known customers as well as “liked” individuals on social media platforms such as Facebook. The goal of this technology is to recognize potential good customers, especially those who spend freely, and alert floor staff by text message to welcome these people as VIPs, helping enhance the personalized shopping experience.
According to a report in Retail Innovation, a manufacturer of intelligent mannequins, Italy-based Almax, has stated that their technology, branded EyeSee, “provides better data because it stands at eye-level and invites customer attention.” The manufacturer contends that one outlet was compelled to “adjust its window displays after revealing that men who shopped in the first two days of a sale spent more than women.”
These facial recognition technologies also have the capacity of recognizing potential “bad guys,” such as shoplifters and members of organized crime, which FaceFirst says helps reduce the cost of shoplifting and lawsuits.
Face-reading is not only exclusive to high-end stores. A report in the BBC describes efforts by multinational food company Mondelez International, owners of many popular brands including Cadbury, Chips Ahoy, Nabisco and Tassimo, to create smart shelves that display different messages to different types of customers, such as a calorie-count to young female shoppers or a discount code for older cost-conscious males. The report goes on to show success in these areas. Quoting Tony Stockil, chief executive of retail strategy consultancy Javelin Group, the article describes “a campaign in Germany, where a retailer in a train station targeted messages at males of a certain age group, reminding them that the next day was Valentine's Day. This resulted in a high proportion of them buying last-minute gifts.”
These technologies open up new frontiers not only in the area of customer retail experience, but also with regard to privacy. Recent pushback to the release of Google Glass has shown that many people are uncomfortable with being photographed surreptitiously, and although security cameras have been in existence since the 1970s, the capacity to actually recognize and track individuals does not sit well with many.
Retailers and retail organizations are working to address this challenge. In a story carried by NPR, Chris de Silva, vice president of IT Solutions at NEC, told the Sunday Times that the company had addressed privacy concerns and found that most high-profile customers are “quite happy to have their information available because they want a quicker service, a better-tailored service or a more personally tailored service.”
The ever-changing face of retail demands more personalized and intelligent approaches to relating to the customer, whose attention spans and loyalties are diminishing by the day. Devices such as “observing mannequins” and even store shelves that offer dynamic, change-by-the-hour pricing will become more and more prevalent as the connectedness of everything continues.
By Steve Prentice