Some stores are engaging in customer tracking tactics that have people asking, “Is it 1984 already?” Mannequins that can tell if you like the outfits they’re modelling; shelves that sense if you’re having trouble finding what you’re looking for and how you feel about the items they hold; advertisements that detect if you’re smiling as you take in the information, as well as your gender and age. Sounds like a science fiction movie, right? This, in fact, is our reality.
According to The Telegraph, some brick-and-mortar retailers in Europe and the U.S. have installed and activated advanced tracking technology in their stores, including strategically placed cameras and sensors, that can detect customers’ facial expressions, movements, moods, heart rates, and pupil dilation. The intent: to improve the customer experience and keep up with their online counterparts. The reality: customers often don’t know that they’re being tracked.
The fact that businesses gather data about consumers is not news and it makes sense that rapid advances in technology allow for deeper research into consumer behavior. As consumers, we also understand that conducting such research allows stores to better provide what we need and want, and we’re usually happy to fill in the surveys, join the focus groups, and sample products. In those cases, however, we’re informed about the data gathering exercise prior to participation and we can opt out. Not so, it seems, with some of the new tracking technologies.
The Telegraph reports that some Italian clothing retailers use mannequins equipped with hidden “intelligent cameras” to gauge customer reactions to outfits. A particular French bookseller uses advanced tracking technology to monitor customers’ movements and facial expressions, and to “discreetly” alert staff if a customer requires assistance. It detects emotions like “surprise, dissatisfaction, confusion and hesitation,” according to the article. The Telegraph also reveals that an Estonian Mothercare store has used “emotion-detection technology,” from a software firm called Realeyes, to determine which customers are likely to spend more during their visits. Thermal-imaging cameras are also used to detect heart rate and can determine “whether shoppers are fascinated or fretting,” according to the article.
Evidence shows that these stealth tracking measures do yield tangible results that are useful to retailers, as well as to consumers. Mothercare’s research found that customers who entered the store smiling “spent 33 percent more cash than those who did not,” reports The Telegraph. And by using these technologies to make staff more attentive to customer needs, that French bookseller increased its sales by 10 percent between August 2016 and April 2017.
Despite the obvious value of tracking technologies to the service they receive, consumers are understandably uncomfortable with having their every move observed and scrutinized — especially when they don’t know it’s happening.
In May, a glitch in the digital advertising screen at Peppe’s Pizza, in Oslo, Norway, revealed facial recognition technology that recorded patrons’ gender, age, and the length of time they spent looking at the screen, as well as whether or not they were smiling and if they wore glasses. According to the Daily Mail, the malfunctioning screen displayed the recorded customer information instead of the actual advertisement.
A Peppe’s Pizza patron, identified as Nepturion on the forum Linus Tech Tips, posted a photo of the billboard on one of the website’s discussion boards with the preface, “So this caught my eye today.. this felt like the movie Minority Report.” He then went on to explain the kind of data the billboard captured and pointed out the hidden camera in the frame above the screen.
One line of information displayed read, “Female-Young adult, Attention time: 2015 out of 4218, Smile.”
The billboard was the product of Kairos, a retail analytics company, whose aim, according to the Daily Mail, is to “hone in on your customer demographics to capture who comes into your stores and how often. How many of the people that walk through your doors are buyers versus browsers? Who’s drawn in by your window displays? Are you reaching your target audience? Our tools can help you get answers to these questions.”
Mark Thompson, Zebra Technologies’ director of Retail and Hospitality, explained to The Telegraph that consumer tracking technologies “are mainly designed to improve people’s shopping experience,” by helping to “catch shoplifters and learn more about their customers.”
Thompson also admits, however, that “These systems are designed to be completely invisible so shoppers do not know they are there.”
Internet comments on the revelation of these consumer tracking practices were mixed. Some people were interested and accepting, or expected that they would have been in the works and implemented at some point. “Where are we not being watched??” asked one commenter to the Daily Mail article. A response to Nepturion’s post on Linus Tech Tips read, “This would be really useful data for marketing ROI, etc. Useful!” While another shared his own experience at a past workplace where “they had a billboard like this showing ads based on your gender and age. Personalized advertising is also a thing outside of the internet.”
Others were shocked and concerned. “Why?!?!? Why do they care if you wear glasses? Why are they watching you anyways? *creepy*” said another commenter to Nepturion’s post.
Regardless of the position, the general consensus was that tracking customers’ facial expressions, movements, and behaviors without their knowledge is “creepy” or “very creepy” in one commenter’s words. According to another commenter to the Daily Mail report, “Creepy does not begin to cover it. The sad part is that all this kind of technology begins with the intention of improving peoples’ lives. It does not take long before it is corrupted in some way.”
[Featured Image by nicoletaionescu/iStock]