February 9, 2013
The Economist - From the print edition
Security cameras are watching honest shoppers, too
SHOPPING online is a revealing act. Websites know what catches visitors’ fancy, how long they linger and where to find them when they leave. Traditional shopkeepers are blind by comparison. Who enters their stores and how they behave are mysteries, which are only partly solved when someone buys something. A click from a finger means more than one from a stiletto heel.
Bricks-and-mortar retailers would like to change that. Stacey Shulman, technology chief of American Apparel, a clothes chain, craves “the same type of analytics in-store as I can get online”. In many cases the equipment is already there: security cameras watch out for thieves and Wi-Fi networks pick up mobile-phone signals. A “furious amount” of testing is going on to see whether such technology can help retailers understand customers better and thus boost profits, says Anthony Mullen of Forrester Research.
Cameras rolling in the aisles
Traffic-counting is already fairly common practice. ShopperTrak has been providing that service to stores for 20 years. A newer breed of service providers, such as RetailNext, American Apparel’s partner, and Tyco, whose roots are in security, encourages retail chains to harness in-store hardware for more exotic purposes. Crime-fighting cameras guess shoppers’ sex and age and draw “heat maps” showing how they move around a store.
Gordmans, a Midwestern department-store chain, discovered via video that goods at a particular display sold especially well. It changed the wares from home furnishings to higher-margin fashion items. Mannequins made by Almax, an Italian company, look back at customers with camera eyes, noting sex, age and ethnicity. One noticed a contingent of Asian shoppers arriving at a shop at the same time every day, prompting the manager to post Asian salespeople to receive them.
Tracking mobile phones yields different nuggets: what share of passers-by enters a store, how many leave immediately (the “bounce rate”) and how many are repeat customers. At least half a dozen retailers are experimenting with tracking employees’ mobile phones to find out, for example, how long it takes to retrieve a pair of shoes from the stockroom.
Retailers need every advantage they can muster to cope with price-chopping websites and skittish rich-world consumers. But they risk giving shoppers the creeps. Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum in San Diego thinks using cameras for non-security ends “violates some very fundamental expectations and rights”. She fears that retailers will profile casual browsers by combining in-store tracking with data from outside sources. The risk will rise as the technology improves.
“There’s no expectation of privacy when you go into a mall,” retorts one shopper-monitoring executive. A better answer is that retailers like American Apparel are analysing groups, not identifying individuals. Cameras set up to do anything fancier than traffic-counting are confined to a few test stores. Mobile-phone trackers identify phones, not their owners, says Will Smith of Euclid Analytics. Still, Euclid recommends telling customers that tracking is going on. “Companies that succeed in this space are companies that address privacy correctly,” he says.