Could Software Allow Shelves To Look Back At Consumers?

Written by Evan Schuman
October 23rd, 2008

Technology that has been deployed to digitally watch—and analyze—how consumers interact with digital signage could also be used to interpret what they are doing while looking at a cereal shelf. Are they ignoring the product or are they picking it up, reading the label and then quickly putting it back? Does the timing and eye movement indicate they were repulsed by the sugar content (near the bottom) or the low fiber count?

The in-store digital technology approach comes from a Bellevue, WA, vendor called Intava, and it’s boasting "a new audience measurement tool that tracks consumers’ faces as they look at interactive displays. A small camera mounted on a digital display follows a customer’s eyes and examines the characteristics of the face to determine if the shopper looked at the screen and for how long," said a statement from the 8-year-old 30-employee company with revenues "greater than $5 million," according to Intava CEO Troy Carroll.

But Carroll said there’s no reason—aside from privacy concerns—that the cameras and software couldn’t be set up to monitor and analyze consumer product interactions.

"We can definitely set up a zone of an aisle and we can definitely track how long did they linger" and could "analyze the angle of the person’s face" to determine the direction they are looking, Carroll said.

With a large enough budget, he said, the ultimate test would be to capture customers as soon as they enter the store (akin to what Home Depot is doing with a kiosk trial, where customers are being given loyalty cards with embedded RFID active tags) and use a series of digital cameras to track them throughout the store.

"We could track what they are looking at, where they are lingering," Carroll speculated. "We’d have a log that contains every important fact about that store visit."

True enough. Indeed, if consumers are also using retailer-issued-and-owned credit cards, the surveillance could extend to what retailers they visited after they left the store and how much they bought there, assuming they use the same merchant-owned credit card.

Carroll questioned aloud how far this might go. "In the future, how much privacy invasion are you going to allow?" he said, adding "I can imagine the rules will be much more stringent in Europe and less so in the United States."


2 Comments | Read Could Software Allow Shelves To Look Back At Consumers?

  1. J.Lee Says:

    I am very much against this kind of “spying” on customers; it’s a real invasion of privacy. I will strongly complain to any company and perhaps not even shop there when I feel that i am being spied upon and that’s exactly what it is- spying, invasion!
    If I find that a product has too much salt or sugar for example, I call or write the company and tell them. I don’t need someone scanning my eyes and watching me read the label. Also the items that you sell more of , for example in the cereal line, must be more popular than the types/brands that don’t sell well. Duh! It’ doesn’t take expensive equipment to find that out!

  2. Evan Schuman Says:

    Editor’s Note: No argument with the potential for invasion of privacy IF (and, dare I say, ONLY if) the data is attached to an individual consumer. If not, it’s quite innocuous aggregate data.
    But I did want to briefly comment on your last line: “The items that you sell more of , for example in the cereal line, must be more popular than the types/brands that don’t sell well. Duh! It’ doesn’t take expensive equipment to find that out!”
    Not necessarily. How can a retailer or manufacturer know WHY a particular product didn’t move? Were people not at all interested? That’s one situation. Or were lots of people seemingly very interested, immediately grabbing the box and about to put it in their cart when they saw something on the label and quickly changed their mind.
    Those two situations would both have registered “no sale” because they would merit very different reactions by the manufacturer. So there is value in that data.


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