More Retailers Tapping Into Facial Recognition Tech to Improve Customer Experience


Had the Rodeo Drive store made famous for its ill treatment of Julia Robert’s character in Pretty Woman been using VIP-identification technology, prostitute Vivian Ward might have been treated quite differently.

“It is the moment every sales assistant dreads,” writes London’s Sunday Times. “A customer is demanding attention; they seem vaguely familiar but you do not have time to deal with them. Only when you get the call from head office does the penny drop: you have just snubbed one of the richest people in the world and turned away a month’s sales in a day.”

Designed by NEC IT Solutions, facial recognition software similar to that used to help identify criminals and terrorists is now available in retail settings. The ID technology analyzes footage of people’s faces as they enter a store, taking measurements that generate a numerical code or “face template” which can be checked against a database.[more]

In the retail environment, the database is composed of celebrities and valued customers. If someone notable enters the store, staff receive an alert via computer, iPad or smartphone, with details such as dress size, favorite purchases and shopping history. 

As for those looking to avoid the limelight with disguises like hats, sunglasses or wigs, a test conducted among several US and UK stores revealed that aging, weight change and haircolor didn’t affect the accuracy of the software, which is also being utilized in high-end hotels. 

As noted, the technology isn’t anything new, however its use outside the realm of surveillance and police work has been met with concern. Google, for instance, was charged to remove facial recognition technology from its upcoming Glass product over privacy concerns. 

“The level of convenience may outweigh the privacy concerns,” Manolo Almagro, SVP digital for retail agency TPN Inc., told NPR. “But I think there is going to have to be some legislation that has to catch up to it,” and suggests it might require customer opt-in. Recently, Nordstrom found itself in a bit of trouble when customers found out the retailer was tracking them via their smartphone signals, prompting the retailer to add signage—and eventually end the program. 

Chris de Silva, VP IT Solutions at NEC, told the Sunday Times that they had addressed privacy issues and found most high-profile customers are “quite happy to have their information available because they want a quicker service, a better-tailored service or a more personally tailored service.”