Com­ing to store shelves: Cam­eras

Re­tail­ers test gadgets to show cus­tomers real-time ad pitches

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - MARYLAND - By Joseph Pisani

NEW YORK — Eye­ing that can of soda in the su­per­mar­ket cooler? Or maybe you’re crav­ing a pint of ice cream? A cam­era could be watch­ing you.

But it’s not there to see if you’re steal­ing. These cam­eras want to get to know you and what you’re buy­ing.

It’s a new tech­nol­ogy be­ing trot­ted out to re­tail­ers, where cam­eras try to guess your age, gen­der or mood as you walk by. The in­tent is to use the in­for­ma­tion to show you tar­geted real-time ads on in-store video screens.

Com­pa­nies are pitch­ing re­tail­ers to bring the tech­nol­ogy into their stores as a way to bet­ter com­pete with online ri­vals like Ama­zon that are al­ready armed with troves of in­for­ma­tion on their cus­tomers and their buy­ing habits.

With store cam­eras, you may not even re­al­ize you are be­ing watched un­less you hap­pen to no­tice the pen­ny­sized 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 this year, a smart shelf on dis­play by Mood Media tried to de­tect “hap­pi­ness” or “fear” as peo­ple stood in front 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 try to tell if 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 fast­food 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 the in­for­ma­tion is anony­mous and the data is not be­ing stored. If the tests work out well, the com­pany said it could ex­pand it into other lo­ca­tions.

Wal­greens, which has more than 8,000 drug­stores, in­stalled cooler doors with cam­eras and sen­sors at six lo­ca­tions in Belle­vue, Wash., Chicago, New York and San Fran­cisco. 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 you are look­ing, but Wal­greens said those func­tions are off for now. The com­pany said the cam­eras are 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 cam­era.

“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 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 eye­ing a not-so­healthy dessert but not buy­ing it, a store could place it at the check­out line so you 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.

“Just be­cause a com­pany doesn’t know ex­actly who you are doesn’t mean they can’t do things that will harm you,” Calo said.

The tech­nol­ogy could also lead to dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices, like rais­ing prices when an older per­son walks in or push­ing prod­ucts based on your per­ceived mood such as ads for an­tide­pres­sion med­i­ca­tion if the cam­eras think you look sad, adds Dixon of the World Pri­vacy Fo­rum.

At a Wal­greens in New York, a sign above a rack of wines said the store is test­ing cam­eras and sen­sors that “do not iden­tify you or store any im­ages.”

The sign doesn’t say where the cam­eras or sen­sors are, but it does have a web ad­dress for the pri­vacy pol­icy of Cooler Screens, the com­pany that makes the doors.

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 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 CEO.

Jon Reily, vice pres­i­dent of com­merce strat­egy at con­sul­tancy Publi­cis.Sapi­ent, said re­tail­ers risk of­fend­ing shop­pers who may be shown ads that are aimed at a dif­fer­ent gen­der or age group. Still, he ex­pects the cam­eras to be widely used in the next four years as the tech­nol­ogy gets more ac­cu­rate, costs less and shop­pers be­come used to it.

For now, he said, “we are still on the creepy side of the scale.”

TERESA CRAWFORD/AP

Wal­greens, which has more than 8,000 drug­stores, in­stalled cooler doors with cam­eras and sen­sors at six lo­ca­tions in four cities.

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