Is retail like Minority Report yet?

“It is becoming just like Minority Report.” That’s a comment heard time and again at retail conferences around the world, in relation to some of the new technologies the industry is investing in to personalise the shopper journey.

The comparisons are often made in reference to the scenes where Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, is on the run from authorities and he walks through a shopping mall and into a Gap store.

He is bombarded with personalised offers based on his circumstances at the time – something that will resonate with many retailers currently looking to get as close to their customers as possible and provide tailored one-to-one interactions.

The whole film, which is loosely based on Philip K Dick’s 1956 novel, centres on the concept of solving serious crimes before they take place using “pre-cognitive” insight. It is effectively an advert for predictive analytics.

Although not a retail-specific film, concepts that impact the industry such as artificial intelligence, personalisation, targeted marketing and digitising the store – as well as facial recognition and voice-activated commands – are showcased in detail.

Facial recognition

The personal retail experiences portrayed in Minority Report are triggered by iris scanning, an area where huge strides have been made in recent years. Apple, Microsoft and Samsung are among the tech companies already embedding iris scanning capability in their products, for use during the user identification process instead of passwords.

Retail stores are not yet set up to identify customers on arrival based on eye biometrics, as Gap is in the film, but there are multiple facial recognition technologies available to the retail industry.

SAP recently became the latest organisation in the retail tech space to launch a solution of this type. The SAP Leonardo digital innovation system uses facial analysis to connect shoppers’ genders and ages to a company or store’s available inventory and stock. The tech enables personalised recommendations to be presented on large displays in a store.

Biometrics has been viewed as a secure method for payments and security in many walks of life, including retail where fingerprints can be used for clocking in or verification on contactless payments.

Research from the Biometrics Institute predicts that, over the next five years, development of biometrics will shift towards online identity verification, government mobile applications, online payments, eCommerce, and healthcare.

Isabelle Moeller, CEO of the institute, says: “Other findings suggested that face dominates as the biometric thought most likely to be on the increase over the next few years, followed by multimodal [combination of two or more biometric modalities in ID] and iris – all usurping fingerprint.”

If the predictions are right, the fictional Gap experience shown in the film might not be too far away.

Personalisation and targeted marketing

The scene most people refer to when suggesting retail is becoming like Minority Report is when Anderton, who is trying to hide from the authorities, is inundated with marketing messages based on his mood.

“The road you’re on, John Anderton, is the road less travelled,” says a digital Lexus billboard, quickly followed by a drinks ad stating: “John Anderton – you could use a Guinness right now.”

An American Express credit card digital signage marketing message notes: “Get away John Anderton, forget your troubles.” Each of the ads has been served to the protagonist, identifying him personally and knowing his current situation.

So many technology companies purport to offer these systems, and retailers are on record saying they want this type of one-to-one communication. But the closest they get to identifying individual shoppers in-store is when loyalty cards are swiped or customers offer up their details voluntarily to give staff access to their shopping history.

Systems and software exists for retailers to access a shopper’s online purchasing behaviour in store, but targeted marketing based on demographic identification – as opposed to specific person analysis – is as far as it goes at present.

Digital signage solutions provider Amscreen, through its partnership with OptimEyes, is an example of a company that can help companies serve up in-store adverts targeting specific age groups or genders. Tesco stores on petrol forecourts were one of the first users of the technology in 2013, and Carrefour launched the screens in Jordan in 2015.

The system can determine a shopper’s gender, approximate age and other basic demographics, and deliver real-time audience measurement data for companies looking to better understand who shops with them and when.

Martin Schofield, the former retail systems manager at Burberry and ex-IT & logistics director at Harvey Nichols, who is now director of Retail247 Consulting, says he is impressed with some of the biometric technologies that have emerged in recent years.

For him, voice and facial recognition are those on the cusp of practical relevance for retailers.

“Facial recognition technology already facilitates real time volume analysis of streaming video, used mainly in the security world, and it can only be a matter of time before retailers move past privacy concerns and this becomes a standard vehicle for customer identification, in-store movement analysis, loyalty and personalised service,” he argues.

Driverless cars and voice automation

Automated vehicles feature prominently in the film, and this vision is certainly becoming a reality in today’s world thanks to the innovation taking place in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world. In retail, the likes of Domino’s Pizza, Just Eat, and Tesco have experimented with driverless vehicle product delivery.

Talking in November 2015, Marks & Spencer CTO, Matt Horwood, said driverless vehicles “could be a fantastic thing" in relation to retailers’ fleets and home delivery networks. In a presentation at Fujitsu Forum, he noted M&S would “continue to look at it” but he did not expect concrete developments in this field until 2020.

In Minority Report, Tom Cruise activates a wall screen by saying the words, “wall screen”. As Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home grow in popularity domestically, a greater number of user cases for voice-enabled tech interactions will surely emerge in business.

In retail, this type of interaction is increasingly used in warehouses for picking items – with UK grocer Booths an early adopter when it implemented Voiteq’s technology in 2006. At the time, the company’s IT and eCommerce director Andrew Rafferty said it enabled a “paperless warehouse, with an automated process and hands-free, eyes-free enabled workers”, and he still talks fondly about introducing the innovation today.

Statistics point to the next generation of voice-enabled retail tech impacting web search – driven by growing mobile phone usage. By 2020, 30% of internet browsing sessions will be done without a screen, according to Gartner, highlighting the importance for businesses to consider voice when planning search engine optimisation strategy.

“As banks begin to adopt voice for security identification, will we see payment by voice in the retail environment? Maybe a combination of face and voice could prevail,” suggests Schofield.

Multiple examples of the technologies showcased in Minority Report are emerging into the retail space, as they are in other industries and the wider world.

During the making of Minority Report, director Steven Spielberg recruited Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers to envision what the world might look like in 50 years’ time. The film is set in 2054, but it seems that some of that ‘future’ is already here – and it is happening in stores, malls and warehouses across the globe.