Byline: Brad Barth

TORONTO — Granting visual control to its online customers, Danier Leather has installed robotic interactive cameras here in its factory store, allowing shoppers who access Danier.com to capture real-time, still photographic images of its flagship outlet.
By clicking on the Web site’s “Danier Live” option, online shoppers are presented with an image of the store’s interior. With the ability to manipulate the direction and focal length of multiple cameras, customers can get an up-close look at the very same merchandise displays that Danier’s customers are seeing in stores.
Consumers can quickly capture images of different departments within the store by clicking on sections of a panoramic image that comprises the entire shopping area. Once customers find the section they’re looking for, they can make subtle camera adjustments in virtually any direction.
Customers usually begin by viewing wide-angled shots, but if a specific product demands closer inspection, shoppers can zoom in on that particular item as much as 36 times. “You can get a very good shot of what the grain is on a garment,” said Danier chief information officer Phil Cutter. “It can get right into collar detail,” added Bruce Aitken, director of merchandise planning.
Customers can control the same cameras simultaneously with other users, so they don’t have to wait.
Shoppers are combining this “tele-presence” technology with Danier’s call center to get superior at-home customer service. In some instances, said Cutter, shoppers have phoned the call center, asking store employees to try on outfits for them in front of the camera. Also, customers have called to request items that are not listed in Danier’s online catalog, but which they found using the store cameras.
Because Danier has only one store in the U.S., “The cameras are a way for people who don’t know us in the U.S. to get an idea of what Danier is all about,” said Cutter. In fact, Americans are responsible for 65 percent of the purchases on the company’s Web site, which launched in December along with the “Danier Live” feature.
Danier has strategically positioned a total of seven moving cameras throughout its flagship store in such a way as to ensure that no product eludes the online shopper, said Cutter. But just as important for Danier was to know where not to allow the cameras to focus, such as fitting rooms and other locations where photographic images would be considered an invasion of privacy.
“We’re going to control the cameras and limit the areas where they can go,” said Cutter. The cameras will not take photos of anything “embarrassing to people” nor “anything that reveals security measures in our stores,” he continued.
The cameras are not quick or powerful enough to read people’s credit cards, yet they can capture high-resolution images of shoppers, who may be unaware that their faces are clearly identifiable.
But to Danier’s credit, the technology is not clandestine. The store has signs that alert customers to the Web cameras, which are plainly visible. According to Alex Fowler, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online consumer advocacy group, Danier is being morally accountable.
“From an ethical standpoint, the company has some responsibility to inform people in the store that the cameras are there and accessible to people on the Net,” said Fowler.
Fowler added that Web cameras are no longer uncommon. Indeed, the same technology can be found in other public locations such as theme parks, sporting events and city streets.
Perceptual Robotics, Evanston, Ill., is supplying Danier with the seven cameras as well as its “Look to Buy” visual operating software system. The applicability of the visual software is practically universal. Anyone on the Internet with a standard Web browser can view the high-resolution JPEG images without downloading plug-in software. (Plug-ins are often necessary for certain visual programs to work.)
Cutter said that Danier will eventually take the visual technology to greater heights. He said that customers will someday be able to click on any photographed garment and subsequently view a corresponding SKU list with product information, as well as a three-dimensional image of the item, which users can rotate in any direction. “That’s what we want to be heading toward — as much interaction and user control as possible,” said Cutter.
In the meantime, the retailer is trying to capitalize on the entertainment value of its technology. On one recent occasion, Danier held a “Men’s Night” fashion show, during which online customers were invited to take virtual snapshots of the event. “That was very popular,” said Aitken. “Guys went online to buy for their wives and girlfriends.”