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SpirE-Journal 2014 Q1

Side Click: Are you under the surveillance camera?

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Side Click: Are you under the surveillance camera?

Identifying VIPs with strong purchasing power is crucial to retail success. More often than not, retail staff fail to do this in time. Facial recognition technology can help prevent this. But does it put our privacy at risk?

With high-spending customers making out-sized contributions to retail profitability, it is increasingly crucial for retailers to provide personalized customer service the minute a VIP customer sets foot in the store. For instance, Katie Holmes reportedly spent USD100,000 on a fashion makeover and USD14,200 on lingerie alone in 2012!

This is where identification technology can play a role. NEC, a Japan-based ICT vendor, has developed an identification application based on a facial recognition system – comparing the individual’s facial features against its database, and sending prompts when a match is identified. The initial purpose of the application was to help identify terrorists and criminals , but it was subsequently adapted to the retail setting.

The system makes use of surveillance cameras inside the store and matches the individual’s facial features against the available database. It also identifies people despite attempts at disguise.

Once a VIP has been identified, the retail staff would be notified via devices such as computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

The system can also retrieve other information such as the customers’ name, clothing size and previous purchase record. This enables retail staff to tailor their message to pitch the right sort of product to each customer.

The information can be shared with retail outlets globally; ensuring that the same elite treatment would be available at all the retail stores under a single franchise world-wide.

As beneficial as the technology may seem, it does pose challenges.

Privacy concerns

Facial recognition software has been constantly challenged by privacy activists. For instance, fashion specialty retailer Nordstrom ran into privacy issues when they tracked the Wi-Fi signals from their customers’ smartphones to gain insights on their shopping habits. While the intention was to enhance customer service, the company was deemed to be infringing customers’ privacy and had to stop.

Segregated customer service

Ironically, while this technology seeks to enhance the customer experience, it may create a segregation in service levels that divides the VIPs from the regular customers. This stratification in service levels may go down very badly for the brand reputation of retailers if practiced too visibly.

What lies ahead?

While the technology is ready, society is not – or at least not yet.

Privacy may become the great civil rights issue of the 21st century. At this point in time, customers would not take too well to being recognized and profiled – without their knowledge or consent – the moment they set foot in a store.

This acceptance barrier can be overcome – with signboards asking customers to activate permission features on their mobile device if they do not mind being “recognized” by retail staff, for example. But in-store facial recognition still has some ways to go before it can be comfortably integrated into popular culture.

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