Tesco's recent announcement that it is to deploy facial detection technology across 450 of its petrol station forecourts captured the interest of many in the media and no doubt many within the retail industry. In case you missed it, Tesco is planning to install face-scanning technology to target advertisements to individual customers when they are at the till.

The technology works by identifying a customer's gender and approximate age. The idea is that an advertisement can be shown tailored more specifically to that demographic.  What it's doing is taking the personalisation of advertising to a different level, so rather than simply presenting customers with advertisements that may or may not be relevant to their preferences, targeting is more defined.

Only days before the Tesco story ran, Ipsos Retail Performance announced that it had added facial detection technology – called Shopper Profile – to its portfolio of customer counting and analysis services. The technology, powered by Intel’s AIM Suite software, has several applications and benefits for retailers and there are two main features of how it works: Audience Counter and Opportunities to See (OTS) Counter.

Audience Counter automatically identifies the profile – not the identity – of a person from a digital image or a video frame and converts it into anonymous analytical data. If a person looks away from the screen/camera and then looks back it again, this is registered as a second count – the technology cannot detect the customer as being the same individual.  

Video sensors categorise and log facial patterns of shoppers who are looking at any specified item, for example, visual messaging, a window display, in-store display or digital screen.  Data is then captured and logged, including demographic details (age and gender), viewing time duration, face position and distance.

The OTS Counter uses sensors to log shoppers as they move through specific areas of a retail environment, such as the main entrance point, or a particular department. By analysing this data, retailers can learn more about shopper demographics, footfall and time patterns, as well as the consumers' overall opportunity to see messaging.

It's important to stress that no personal image or data is stored in systems and therefore the anonymity of shoppers is assured.

With Shopper Profile, detailed non-personal information can be collected on how consumers respond to visual messaging and how they move through stores; from the moment they enter until they exit, and how they engage with messages throughout their in-store experience. The technology highlights several different facts about consumers, including gender and age range, as well as providing information on what content was viewed and for how long.

The data is immediately actionable so that retailers can make alterations that will help their customers. For example, changes can be made to signage or merchandising making it easier for customers to locate and engage with items. With facial detection technology deployed in a key marketing area, demographic data can be used to determine the impact that a display is having on conversion rates.

As with any type of people monitoring system, some immediately shout 'big brother' and others will appreciate that the technology is not as invasive as it first sounds and is actually quite useful – for retailers and consumers.

It's a fact that most retailers now have some form of people counting and tracking system in their stores and tracking the movement and buying behaviour of shoppers is possible through a whole host of accepted systems. At a basic level, technologies such as sensors are used to count customers in and out of a store as well as their movement within it; for example, to determine the popularity of a particular department or in-store fixture. By understanding customer behaviour, retailers can gather useful insights and make appropriate changes, such as store layout, staffing levels, and so on.

The primary aim with monitoring systems – including facial detection – is to improve the customer experience so that ultimately it leads to higher conversion rates. Facial detection technology is simply an automated tool that enables retailers to fine-tune their services to their customer demographic. There are many other benefits to customers and retailers as well, such as being able to optimise staffing levels and ensuring that queue times are kept to a minimum.

We live in a society where in many parts of the world people observations take place all the time, and some have nothing to do with retail performance.  For example, the majority of shoppers are well aware that CCTV cameras are deployed in stores, shopping centres, high streets and a host of other public places, in order to improve public safety and security. When first introduced, CCTV was immediately seen by many as an invasion of personal privacy – and probably to some people CCTV is still regarded as unacceptable or a 'necessary evil' – but is now widely regarded by the majority as acceptable and useful.

Facial detection technology is no more invasive than CCTV cameras and probably less so as it does not record images. The primary aim is not to capture customer details but instead to improve the customer's experience by better understanding what, where and when they want it.

Other comparisons can also be made with online retail and a consumer's willingness to provide much detail about their identity. Each day, millions of online shoppers across the world are more than happy to punch in all of their personal information into a computer, including their names, email addresses, postal addresses, credit card details and passwords. The risk of their identity being captured, understood and compromised is way – way – higher than the use of facial detection technology.

High street retailing is moving on and the use of technology to improve the customer's experience is not only here to stay, it will increase and evolve. Facial detection is but one development and its uses and applications will become clearer in 2014 as more retailers explore how, like Tesco, they use it for targeted advertising, increased conversion rates and other purposes.

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