NEW YORK -- New technology being trotted out to retailers uses cameras to try to guess shoppers' age, sex or mood as they walk past store shelves. The intent is to use the information to display targeted real-time ads on in-store video screens.
Companies are pitching the technology as a way for retailers to better compete with online rivals such as Amazon that are already armed with troves of information on their customers and their buying habits.
With store cameras, shoppers may not even realize they're being watched unless they happen to notice the penny-sized lenses. And that has raised concerns over privacy.
"The creepy factor here is definitely a 10 out of 10," said Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit that researches privacy issues.
At the National Retail Federation trade show in New York earlier this year, a smart shelf on display by Mood Media tried to detect "happiness" or "fear" as people stood in front of it -- information a store could use to gauge reaction to a product on the shelf or an ad on a screen. Cineplex Digital Media showed off video screens that can be placed in malls or bus stops and can try to tell whether someone is wearing glasses or sporting a beard, which in turn can be used to sell ads for new frames or razors.
The screens can also be placed at the drive-thru. A minivan pulling into a fast food restaurant, for example, might get an ad for a family-sized meal on the video screen menu.
For now, the cameras are in just a handful of stores.
Kroger, which has 2,800 supermarkets, is testing cameras embedded in a price sign above shelves in two stores, in the suburbs outside Cincinnati and Seattle. Video screens attached to the shelves can play ads and show discounts. Kroger said the cameras guess a shopper's age and sex but that the information is anonymous and the data are not being stored. The company said that if the tests work out well, it could expand the effort into other locations.
Walgreens, which has more than 8,000 drugstores, installed cooler doors with cameras and sensors at six locations in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Bellevue, Wash. Instead of the usual clear glass doors that allow customers to see inside, there are video screens that display ads along with the cooler's contents.
Above the door handle is a camera that can try to guess ages and track irises to see where shoppers are looking, but Walgreens said those functions are turned off for now. The company said the cameras are currently being used to sense when someone is in front of the cooler and count the number of shoppers passing by. It declined to say if it will turn on the other functions of the cameras.
"All such enhancements will be carefully reviewed and considered in light of any consumer privacy concerns," Walgreens said.
Advocates of the technology say it could benefit shoppers by showing them discounts tailored to them or by drawing attention to products that are on sale. But privacy experts warn that even if the information being collected is anonymous, it can still be used in an intrusive way.
For instance, if many people are looking at a not-so-healthy dessert but not buying it, a store could place it at the checkout line so the shoppers see it again and "maybe your willpower breaks down," said Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law and co-director of its Tech Policy Lab.
Dixon said the technology could also lead to discriminatory practices, like raising prices when an older person walks in or pushing products based on a person's perceived mood, such as ads for anti-depression medication aimed at shoppers who seem sad.
"We shouldn't be gathering the emotional state of anyone," Dixon said.
Calvin Johnson, who was looking for a Snapple, said he visited the store before but didn't notice the cameras until a reporter pointed them out.
"I don't like that at all," Johnson said.
Another shopper, Ray Ewan, said he noticed the lenses while grabbing a Diet Coke but that he isn't concerned since cameras are hard to avoid.
"There's one on each corner," Ewan said.
Not all retailers are keen on adding embedded cameras. Walmart's Sam's Club, which is testing shelves with digital price tags, is cautious about them.
"I think the most important thing you do with tech like that is to make sure people know," said John Furner, Sam's Club's chief executive officer. "You don't want to surprise people on how you use technology or data."
Jon Reily, vice president of commerce strategy at consultancy Publicis Sapient, said retailers risk offending customers who may be shown ads that are aimed at a different gender or age group. Nonetheless, he expects the embedded cameras to be widely used in the next four years as the technology becomes more accurate, as it costs less and as shoppers get used to it.
For now, he said, "we are still on the creepy side of the scale."
Information for this article was contributed by Manuel Valdes and Anne D'Innocenzio of The Associated Press.
Business on 04/24/2019
Print Headline: Stores test shelf cameras to gather data