Retail Prophet

Doug Stephens

Service Versus Surveillance: The New Frontier of In-store Analytics

It is now widely accepted that with every Facebook like, Amazon browse, Instagram post or Google Maps query, we’re being watched, monitored and targeted. We’re being tracked online and to a great extent we’ve come to accept it as the price we pay for a wide range of digital services – a deal with the Devil, so to speak.

Today though, this same level of surveillance capability is coming to the real world, as brick- and-mortar retailers begin to fight back against online rivals. The fact is, each day billions of shoppers take to physical stores and for the most part, retailers have little-to-no intelligence about who those consumers are, much less their individual needs or preferences. Where online retailers can track every move a consumer makes on their site, physical retailers are largely oblivious when it comes to what live customers are doing within the four walls of their store.

However, a growing number of technologies are aiming to change that, giving physical retailers the ability – in theory – to not only capture every nuanced consumer action taking place within a store but also to program a myriad of real-time reactions to better and more personally serve those same unique consumers.

An abbreviated list of the technologies being employed includes:

  • Computer vision technologies paired with sophisticated analytics to instantaneously convert images of shoppers’ faces into biometric templates enabling a retailer to determine if a particular customer is a unique or repeat
  • Thermal imaging technology that determines patterns in customer movement through space, showing areas of dense movement versus sparse movement
  • Device-based tracking keys into our mobile device’s unique identifier to track individual consumers through a retail space
  • Motion capture monitors which specific items are being removed from shelves by consumers, as well as which items are put back
  • Wi-Fi that, by simply logging in, shares the users unique MAC (media access control) address with the provider. Use a social login like Facebook and personal information can also be captured
  • Floor sensors measures footpath and engagement time by location
  • Apps such as mobile payment software, which geographically and temporally identify customers and their buying patterns
  • Radio frequency identification transmitters attached to products detect their movement and location (garments moving from a rack to the fitting room, for example)
  • Emotional capture technology used to determine the emotional or cognitive state of shoppers by analysing facial expressions

And what happens when you put a number of these technologies together? Consider that technology giant Adobe recently launched a cloud-based platform that, by using a variety of

data points and technologies, identifies individual shoppers in real-time as they enter a store, portraying them as moving dots on a store map. It then allows store management to click on and receive a full profile of each individual, including spending patterns, marital status, age range, city of residence and more. From there, each individual consumer can be micro-targeted with specific offers and promotions to suit their known purchasing patterns.

Take a visit to an Amazon Go store, the first of which opened in Seattle in 2018, and from the moment you scan your mobile device on entry to crossing the threshold on exit, every movement and interaction you have with the store is monitored in real time.

While marketers will no doubt welcome such a data-rich future, consumers remain more circumspect. According to a study by the Advertising Research Foundation, research suggests that we are largely willing to share data about who we are, but we are decidedly more reluctant to share information about where we are. In other words, there’s an important difference in the shopper’s mind between the sharing of data and straight-up surveillance.

It’s highly unlikely that marketers will un-see the opportunity to turn stores into living and responsive websites.

The problem is that there are two directly competing forces at play in today’s retail market. First, the internet is rewiring consumers to expect new levels of personalisation of shopping experiences and products. We’ve become conditioned by online retailers to expect exactly what we want and how and when we want it. We rail against being treated by companies as nameless, faceless consumers. That said, we also retain a desire privacy and a degree of anonymity. It’s these two conflicting consumer needs that are now colliding head-on and prompting many to ask, whether one can one achieve intimacy without information? Can we enjoy hyper-personalisation while maintaining our privacy?

Based on our research of brands that are succeeding with these technologies, the answer is a resounding “yes”. In fact, there’s no reason that the needs of retailers and consumers can’t be harmonious. There’s no reason why, if used effectively, these technologies can’t lead to better experiences for all.

The caveat however, is that to be successful requires an understanding of the best practices tactics and approaches being used by successful industry players to gain and maintain consumer trust.

Join me and the team at CenturyLink on February 28th to learn how astute brands are pioneering this new and compelling frontier in physical retail and winning in their categories.

Doug Stephens is the founder of Retail Prophet and author of the international bestselling book Reengineering Retail: The Future of Selling in a Post-Digital World.