Retailers are scrambling for solutions in an oversaturated and increasingly crowded market. While many are feeling the growing pains, some have gone beyond marketing strategies and rebranding measures. The latest headline-making technology to experiment with tactics to better understand consumer behavior and mind-sets is facial recognition software.
With the filing of a patent to deploy said technology, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has garnered attention for the potential of deploying the technology at scale. What does this mean? Video cameras might one day be in stores to surveil — and analyze — the emotions of its customers. Instances of dissatisfaction will be noted and addressed. Over time, these insights could lead to better analyses of patterns in purchase behavior — and they might help stabilize the present, shaky ground on which the fate of brick-and-mortar rests.
Considered an over-step of individual privacy boundaries to some, but a genius customer service strategy to others, Maya Mikhailov, chief marketing officer and co-founder at retail mobile app developer GPShopper, shared her take on this technology — and what it could mean for retail — with WWD.
WWD: How big of a trend is facial expression recognition technology right now?
Maya Mikhailov: It appeared several years ago, but has not been widely rolled out in retail. Or, at least, retailers are not openly admitting publicly to it yet. There is reason to believe it will play an increasing role on our mobile devices, especially since Apple purchased Emotient, a leading provider of facial expression technology, over a year ago. Many of our devices — from laptops to ATMs — are allowing us to log in with our faces, which stands to reason that these devices would also want to tailor experiences to us based on the expression we are wearing.
WWD: How might this type of tech help brands and retailers?
M.M.: For starters, it would help with customer service. If a shopper is standing in a store and looking upset, a store associate could be dispatched to help that customer. The technology could also play a role in product or selection support: Imagine a shopper is lingering in front of a shelf with 20 brands of detergent appearing perplexed or scowling. A message on their phone or a voice-activated shelf could ask them if they need help finding a product or require help in making a decision that best suits their stain-fighting needs.
Next, these technologies can see which in-store displays and ads are most effective in getting a customer’s attention or eliciting a positive response. This can also extend to the layout of the store itself, interpreting expressions to determine if there are areas that cause particular joy or frustration. Finally, this type of technology could monitor checkout lines and see when customers’ moods in one line become annoyed or impatient, helping managers know when to staff more registers.
WWD: What is your response to customers who might be uncomfortable with being so closely watched?
M.M.: Shoppers’ level of comfort with this technology depends on their awareness of it. In many cases, shoppers are already being watched closely with store heat mapping and other video technologies for security and marketing uses. It will be interesting to see if, once they are made aware of the technology, shoppers change their behavior in stores. Will they start wearing specialized sunglasses or other accessories because they do not want to be emotionally profiled or targeted? Will they perhaps stop visiting certain stores all together if they feel creeped out, then retreat to the perceived anonymity of online shopping?
WWD: What are some other potential flaws of this specific type of technology?
M.M.: One potential flaw is the accuracy of such technology, even though it seems to have come a long way since its inception and will continue to improve. It is also possible that the technology will misinterpret a person’s expression. For example, a shopper might have a frustrated look on their face, prompting the assistance of sales associates, even if the reaction is to something unrelated to the retailer, like their child.
WWD: Still, GPShopper has conducted ample research on what retail tech consumers are looking for in their shopping experiences and found that this type of innovation is just the kind of thing that retail needs right now. What made your team conclude this?
M.M: We have conducted research about the types of technology consumers are most receptive to both in and out of stores. This includes augmented reality, which 50 percent said they wish to use in stores to acquire more information about a product, ingredients or the materials used. Through this and other data points, it is evident that consumers are embracing — and in some cases, expecting — technology innovation to assist in the shopping experience.
More surprisingly, the research revealed how quickly consumers embrace new store technologies if they believe that these developments will make the shopping journey faster, more informed, and more convenient.
WWD: What would be the best thing about facial recognition technology systems in retail?
M.M.: There is an opportunity to use this technology to help retailers make better decisions with physical space, including store planning and product assortment. Although heat maps can tell retailers where a consumer has been, it does not assist in the understanding of how they reacted to the surroundings. There might be a lot of traffic in a particular section of a store, for example, but there is no guarantee that the experience is a positive one.
For consumers, this can also mean that retailers will be more attuned to their immediate needs in providing service and information.
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