Know your data 10: spying mannequins

November 25, 2012

(This article was originally published at Numbers Rule Your World, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Mashable (link) made a big fuss out of a new technology: mannequins that have cameras and data processing software, which allows the retailers to discern age, gender, and race of shoppers. This allows the shops to observe shopping patterns, and they will use this knowledge to change the store layouts, product placements, and so on to improve the shopping experience.

I see nothing wrong with this. The software as described is much more benign than the face recognition software deployed by Facebook for example. The Facebook version links a face to a name while this software only places one into broad demographic segments. A store has to be designed for the "average" shopper, and so it is useless for the shop to identify individuals. Moreover, shops have a large number of transient customers, say tourists, who will only show up once in their lives.

Mashable has a quote from Nordstrom, claiming that this technology "crosses privacy boundaries with customers" and they would never use it. That's a nice sound bite but I wonder if Nordstrom, or any large retailer for that matter, has owned up to spying on shoppers already. They have pretend-shoppers in their stores taking detailed notes on how individual shoppers behave. A number of books have been written on this topic, such as Paco Underhill's Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping (link).

I admire the work Underhill and associates have been doing. Store statistics can only tell you what but never why. In order to understand why shoppers behave in certain ways, these researchers are doing the legwork of painstakingly collecting data. This is one of the lessons of Chapter 2 of Numbers Rule Your World. In epidemiology, it's called shoe leather. In the world of Nate Silver, it's called polling -- what Nate does isn't possible without pollsters interviewing real people, gathering the data, compiling and analyzing them. One can say the new mannequin technology streamlines the data collection a bit.

In fact, these mannequins are much less intrusive than online or mobile shopping. In those arenas, retailers can absolutely link our every click to our name and address. There are those who claim they receive "permission" to collect data but no online retailer I know of would let me buy something if I reject their data sharing agreement.


I'm waiting for Mashable to correct their story. In a bid to find a villain, they claimed that Benetton is one of the big-name customers of this technology--both in the lead and in the article itself. However, if you click to the original Bloomberg article they cited (link), you'd be surprised to learn that "Benetton Group SpA said it’s not using EyeSee or comparable technology."

This lapse of reporting accuracy is much more serious than the alleged privacy intrusion.

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