Shopping with Big Brother

Harry Campbell

By now, we all expect to be tracked when we shop online. But thanks to new retail technologies, even brick-and-mortar stores are falling prey to the Internet’s watchful eye.

"Know your customer,” or KYC, has long been one of retail’s mantras. Online shoppers are increasingly aware of how far e-commerce has taken that imperative, snooping on our Web searches and buying habits with more gusto than an NSA analyst. By contrast, brick-and-mortar shops may seem like havens of serene anonymity, but recent developments in retail technology make it clear that we’re closer than ever to a Minority Report-style future in which stores know who we are, what we want to buy, and how much we’re willing to pay for it as soon as we walk in the door.

A raft of new firms is helping retailers to produce, in an instant, dazzlingly detailed data sets that can help them understand (and, of course, upsell) any customer. One such firm, RetailNext—which already counts Bloomingdale’s and Club Monaco among its clients—has imported many of the monitoring and data-crunching techniques that have long defined online shopping into the real world. Burberry, for its part, has begun embedding RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags into some items in order to keep track of inventory and, as the website puts it, “enhanc[e] the customer experience” by triggering videos about prospective purchases on nearby screens. “It is possible that in the future we may link the RFID tags to our customer database,” warns the site. “However, we will not do this unless we have the prior consent of our customers.”

“One of the great advantages of online was that retailers could capture your personal information down to a gnat’s eyelash, but now consumer behavior in-store can be tracked much more minutely,” notes retail consultant Robin Lewis, publisher of the retail industry bible The Robin Report. “We’re at the edges of a tsunami.”

Lewis dismisses concerns over privacy as, well, passé. “Millennials don’t care about privacy, and everybody else will soon die off,” he quips, adding that it won’t be long before that generation makes up 80 to 90 percent of retail sales. For 18- to 35-year-olds, individuality trumps anonymity, prompting retailers to seek new ways to personalize the shopping experience. Below are a few of the new technologies you can expect to see—or, more troublingly, not see—at a store near you.

They’re watching you…

Forget delivery drones. If recent patent filings are any indication, Amazon’s next real-world foray is likely to be a brick-and-mortar store. Using a system of cameras, sensors, facial-recognition programs, and RFID (radio-frequency identification) readers to identify shoppers and items they’ve chosen, Amazon’s proposed mall store can fully automate and track the purchasing process. No cashier required.

Want to know how that purse detail or raincoat lining was made? At Burberry’s London flagship, waving a would-be purchase in front of the store’s interactive screens triggers videos and graphics via an embedded RFID chip that tells the backstory behind that particular item.

Remember Kim Cattrall in Mannequin? The Italian firm Almax brought the film’s concept to life a few years ago with its EyeSee models. These robo-mannequins have cameras instead of eyes, which record the age, sex, and ethnicity of any shopper pausing in front of the display.

Russia’s answer 
to Sephora, the drugstore Ulybka Radugi recently launched a program that proposes discounts tailored to
a shopper’s mood via facial-recognition software installed at each register. If a camera spots a regular who seems forlorn, for example, it can access and then sift through her purchasing history for a personal pick-me-up, perhaps offering a coupon for
a guilt-free splurge on her favorite body lotion.

Meet one sales assistant who has an excuse for her robotic demeanor: Aiko Chihira, Toshiba’s android hostess, who blinks, smiles, and gives a six-minute guided tour of a department store in Tokyo where she was “employed” in customer service.