Wal-Mart Looking To Take Spying On Shoppers To The Next Level

from the we-know-where-you-are-and-what-you're-looking-at dept

The art and science of retail shopping continues to advance with new technologies. There's been a lot of focus on RFIDs lately, especially with Wal-Mart's embrace of the technology, but it seems that Wal-Mart intends to go even further. They want to use infrared beams to track shoppers' movements throughout the store, and then use a computer system to compare it to sales. In other words, if you linger for a while in front of a certain display before ultimately buying a product, they want to know it, and use that info in the future. Apparently, a trial version of the system is already underway in 10 Wal-Mart locations, with the hope that other retailers will jump on board as well.


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  1.  
    identicon
    DSM, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 6:10pm

    This is good...

    If you're lingering, looking at certain items longer than others, etc, that's fine. I would reather have an RFID tag tell someone this over some mouth-breather employee lingering in every aisle staring at you.

    I don't have a problem with this at all. The expectation of privacy in a public place always surprises me. If you go into a store, as long as they remain within the law, they can do pretty much anything they want to gain an edge.

     

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  2.  
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    Michael Vilain, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 6:11pm

    This isn't new

    Paco Underhill made his living being an urban anthropologist, observing shoppers for major retailers to help them improve their "conversion rate" when someone picks up something, that they'll buy it. He documented it in his book THE SCIENCE OF SHOPPING. Quite an interesting read. I didn't know I shopped like a girl, only that I threw like one.

    This new technology just replaces the observer with a clipboard. It won't collect as much information as what a shopper did while standing at a location in a store, but it's a start.

     

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  3.  
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    Mike (profile), Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 6:19pm

    Re: This isn't new

    Yeah, I think we've actually written about Paco Underhill before, but this is new, in that it's much more advanced technologically, and covers a lot more people than people with clipboards. It's also not designed to be a "sampling" but an ongoing effort. I think it's quite new. Saying it's not new is saying that a car is no different than a horse and buggy, just that it has an engine instead of a living horse pulling it...

     

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  4.  
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    Brandon Fowler, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 6:48pm

    This really really isn't new.

    I've noticed the tracking devices hanging off of the shopping carts here in Bowling Green, KY for a couple years now. They've been doing this for a while. If you look at the front rail of your shopping cart, you'll see an antenna dragging the floor.

     

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  5.  
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    Faz, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 6:55pm

    WOW

    i love this technology.... being an It guy it excites me. it will scare me when RFId starts ordering medicine from my medicine cabniet, but as long as i have privacy in my own house.... i love the technology the monkies of walmart can have....

     

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  6.  
    identicon
    Ray, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 7:30pm

    Hmm.

    Now how am I going to shoplift?
    "We noticed that people lingering in front of this item.. oh.. it's gone. Get him!"

     

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  7.  
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    Doog, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 7:39pm

    Maybe this will help find shoplifters too....

    The guy lingering in the back corner out of view of the camera's is not looking at something. He is opening a box to empty the contents into his pockets, and hide the box under the shelves. Way to go WalMart. I think its a great idea!

     

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  8.  
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    Sam, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 7:45pm

    fun stuff

    It's really no different than a script amazon.com uses to suggest items of interest for you or the new intuitvie searching google is ramping up that uses previous searches to track what you really liked.

    They'll just track video1 around the store, find out what you like, you pay with a credit card, they'll link your name and card to the item and where the item was. Give it a few trips to walmart and they'll print out reciepts with suggestions for other products of the type.



    plus walmart shoplifting is easy...I'm not proud by any means(and still paying for it mind you) but I did take part in it back in the day and not once did I set off an alarm because I had a grasp of RF technology.

    They are installing silent alarms by the bathroom doors, I know that one for a fact.

     

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  9.  
    identicon
    Yo ho ho..., Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 7:48pm

    Reality check

    There really is no possibility that this technology is ready for primetime...

    They can barely keep the inventory management systems working -- so anybody who thinks that the db systems required to keep a realtime tracking log of all in-store interactions for a 16 hr day / 7 days a week of all customers who enter the store might as well purchase their tickets for the next trip to Pluto... as that will happen around the same time.

    I think the sensor / RFID tech is ready, but in no way are the backend systems agile or robust enough to track the infinite amounts of data that will be generated.

    but hell, maybe this is just intended to scare off the potential shoplifters... as if they could read...

     

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  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 8:00pm

    Just what I want. Someone watching every little move I make when I walk into a store.

    Do I need another reminder why I should avoid Walmart?

     

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  11.  
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    James Stevens, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 8:19pm

    What If..........

    You linger in the lingerie department.....Will you be given the opportunity to get a bargain price on Playboy mags or X rated Dvds when you buy undergarments.....What is that dragging on the floor?

    "I've noticed the tracking devices hanging off of the shopping carts here in Bowling Green, KY for a couple years now. They've been doing this for a while. If you look at the front rail of your shopping cart, you'll see an antenna dragging the floor."

     

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  12.  
    identicon
    Cyryl, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 8:23pm

    What you're failing to see is...

    Ok...

    Most of you seem to be blowing this out of perspective.

    What I think they're really trying to do is to track sales in all departments in order to try and create a more efficient retail experience.

    If there are X customers going into THIS department, then there is more interest HERE. So since TWICE as many customers are going to Dept. A than are going to Dept. B, what is it about B that we are failing to do in order to attract their attention?

    THIS is one step closer to realizing just how much the products in Dept. B SUCK. Maybe instead of having that shit around for 3 years until the inventory system FINALLY puts it into clearance, they'll be able to more efficiently rotate their stock to put products we'll ACTUALLY WANT on the shelves.

    It's going to serve as a way to monitor customer flow in order to figure out what new layouts and product sets they can put into OR take out of the store in order to generate more sales.

    To be honest... They actually don't end up losing that much money on most things that shoplifters end up stealing. Those little monkies wearing their fancy little blue WalMart vests are just BORED and looking for a way to make their day interesting. They think they're 'doing their job'.

    WalMart doesn't really care THAT much about what's being taken.

    And neither do most retailers.

    What they DO care about...is what's BEING SOLD. What they ARE making money on.

    That is probably their primary focus in this technological venture. Take it from a veteran retailer. I lead an electronics department at a Staples for 2 years and then Music and Boutique departments at another chain here in town.

    This is simply a way for their layout teams to figure out just exactly what they can do to get people in for the sole purpose of BUYING shit.

    The proof lies within the law.

    They may know how long you were there. They may know just exactly what you took.

    But they can't do a FUCKING THING without visual confirmation. An employee has to NOT ONLY witness you taking it, but CAN NOT lose visual contact of you in the store ALL THE WAY TO THE DOOR. If they lose site of you for even a SECOND, it's no good. They may guess at it, apprehend you anyway... But if that item isn't on you then it's THEIR ass because that leads to possible litigation.

    OR it has to be on camera.

    Retail is a fucked up market like that.

    But yeah. They're probably focusing on retail flow, department layouts and planogram purposes.

     

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  13.  
    identicon
    ?, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 8:26pm

    Re: This really really isn't new.

    Maybe this antenna is some kind of antistatic device. You know, to keep shoppers from blowing up in the middle of their shopping experience.

     

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  14.  
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    kingfish, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 9:02pm

    Another thought

    When I was a kid, if I found a traffic counter strung across the street I would stomp on for a long time so it would seem like hundreds more vehicles were crossing that area. I plan to stand around staring at shit I would never buy just to screw this up.

     

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  15.  
    identicon
    u no, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 9:44pm

    Re: What you're failing to see is...

    wow, what a long comment. my attention span is not quite that long yet. Good point though.

     

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  16.  
    identicon
    Role Reversal, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 9:54pm

    Can't we...

    put RFID tags on the employees, so we know where to avoid going?

     

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  17.  
    identicon
    blah, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 10:08pm

    Re: Reality check

    If anyone has the capacity to do it, Wal Mart does. There was a documentary on the History Channel about Wal Mart, Im pretty sure they have the backend system to handle it. They already have something similar. Every single item scanned at every Wal Mart is tracked by their home office already.

     

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  18.  
    identicon
    SyntaxC4, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 10:29pm

    Now this might just be a canadian thing but...

    In Canada, Retailers aren't allowed to store credit or debit card information on a computer system. Once the transaction is process the only recollection of a credit card number or debit card number is the receipt, unless it is only a 4 digit code to underly the uniqueness of the debit card linking it to the customer. Online stores get around this as there is no specific law for online retailers because governments have more fun picking at their own a$$e$ than to actually do their so called jobs. so as for linking purchases to a credit card number i think that's out, unless no one knows the law and lets the retailer get away with it. i'd say it would be more of a merchandise tracking system than anything, it would quicken movement on shop lifters as a long as it tracks the merchandise in the cart.

     

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  19.  
    identicon
    A chicken passeth by, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 10:39pm

    ...does not bode well for window shoppers, who linger around places for a long, long time - but ultimately don't buy anything. -.-

     

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  20.  
    identicon
    some dude, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 11:13pm

    I think that Wal-Mart should have a day where everyone that shops there on a regular basis should be allowed to steal something. It only seems fair.

     

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  21.  
    identicon
    dorpus, Oct 2nd, 2006 @ 11:30pm

    Inverse Reality

    The local wal-mart is about 70-80% black people where I live. On Sundays, all the black people come in wearing their formal attire, while white people from the local trailer park come in their dirty T-shirts and baseball caps. Should wal-mart start putting up images of Black Jesus on Sundays?

     

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  22.  
    identicon
    Tony, Oct 3rd, 2006 @ 4:25am

    Re: This really really isn't new.

    Actually, that's not an antenna. That's just a chain that's used to ground the cart so you won't get shocked as you push it. The plastic part of the wheels don't allow the static electricity to travel to the floor, so if that chain is missing it finds the next best way to the ground...through you. Find a cart without that chain on a dry day and push it around in the store for awhile and touch a metal part of the cart and you'll see what I mean.

     

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  23.  
    identicon
    Charlie, Oct 3rd, 2006 @ 7:05am

    I guess I won't be...

    If they start tracking my movements in stores I guess I won't be able to linger so long in the lingerie department fondling the models...

    On a serious note, stores have been doing this for a long time. They have just used employees and secret shoppers to monitor how people shop.

    If they didn't it is likely that ice cream (a big selling item) would be at the entrance to the store and melt before you got to the checkouts. Understanding how people shop helps stores to sell more and bring the items you want to your attention faster.

    One day you will probably walk in the store and the greeter will say "Welcome to Wal-Mart, we noticed your car needed oil, you need new underwear, and your son's actual birth father is your best friend." Till then they can track my movements in their store all they want.

     

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  24.  
    identicon
    Glurbie, Oct 3rd, 2006 @ 7:15am

    More like a turnstile than a tracker

    I found another article giving more detail of how the system works, although it does read like a PR peice:
    http://fullcoverage.yahoo.com/s/zd/189805

    If the description is correct, then it would really only tell you how many people are in an aisle at any given time. If two people are in a section, and one leaves, it wouldn't be able to tell you which of the two people left. Even worse, it wouldn't be able to tell if two people cross the beam at the same time.

    Unless they combine the infrared sensor data with camera data, it doesn't seem like a very useful system. It isn't much for security either--you could defeat it with bubblegum.

     

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  25.  
    identicon
    Ben(Damnit), Oct 3rd, 2006 @ 8:41am

    Support the U.S. Eccomomy

    And US companies, don't buy anything 'made in china' from walmart... o wait.... do they sell anything not made in china?

     

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  26.  
    identicon
    Anonymous of Course, Oct 3rd, 2006 @ 10:59am

    Beams Schmeams

    Couldn't this end be achieved using the already
    pervasive video camera feeds?

    Tracking customers though the store and guaging
    their dwell time at various displays should be possible.
    You don't have to track all of them just enough for
    a statistically useful sample.

    I vaugely remember Cohu or Massa Labs working
    on something like that for guarding banks... about
    25 years ago. It looked for unusual traffic patterns
    and set an alarm if it detected anything extrodinary.

     

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  27.  
    identicon
    leroy, Oct 3rd, 2006 @ 12:59pm

    walmart tracking technology

    There are many avenues of use for RFID at stores like Walmart. The end result is of course to increase profit and lower costs. While utilizing computer technology to track customers buying habits, minimize loss via theft, optimize customer repeat sales by adding new services, lower costs by closely controlling store inventory.
    RFID can track you coupled with technology already used in casinos (facial recongition) or RFID chips planted in Walmart clothing can identify you, coupled with your purchase history, the overhead TV sets can speak to you about an item on sale you have purchased in the past but walked past without grabbing this time. "Hey there valued walmart customer... 15 cents off milk for the next 20 minutes only!" this plays on the overhead tv when you forget to grab milk.
    With theft, there are items more likely to be stolen than others, stastically they know which these are and where they may be carried inside the store or how long from grab to sale, time-wise, to predict theft patterns and notify store security. (example: Gilette super 4 blade razors become more likely to be stolen if time exceeds 20 minutes from shelf to register. When that happens secuity is sent your photo to their cellphone after the safe time has expired or the razors are taken to a part of the store where shoplifters prefer to shove that item down their pants.)
    The technology is still being rolled out, but eventually you may be able to avoid the check-out line totally, just sign-up as a preferred customer, register your debit card, put the digital chip on your key chain, grab the item place it in the cart and leave the store. Remember, the goal is to lower the number of employees needed and the cash register is a big place for walmart to loose money via theft, fraud, errors.
    The TV's overhead play to nobody now, but eventually they will speak to you directly, they're just getting you used to their presence now. You can search online for the RFID standards group to see possible applications for the technology.

    L

     

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  28.  
    identicon
    Franssu, Oct 4th, 2006 @ 9:15am

    Re: This is good...

    And I can do pretty much anything I want, like never going there. Oh wait, it's Wal-Mart, I already don't go there...

     

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  29.  
    identicon
    Noone, Bill, Oct 4th, 2006 @ 10:36am

    Response to What you're failing to see is... by Cy

    Cyryl
    What you are failing to understand is
    1) RDId and thermal tracking will show where the potential customer is on the floor but not the exact product or products that the customer sees or touches. Remember that products on the shelf have the same ambient heat signature as their surroundings and would therefore not show up on the film with any kind of clarity.
    2) the concept of target marketing for customers using debit or credit cards can and is being easily handled at the cash register. Here your purchased item can be attached to your credit card number and you can then be target marketed for similar products.
    3) many stores brand products with a magnetic strip that will cause a beep to occur if you attempt to leave the store with attachment still on the product. An example clothing. Most stores have a special device or set of pliers to remove the strip.
    4) when I walk into a store I don't really want to be branded or seen as a potential thief (read shoplifter). This is the worst possible customer relations activity. If everyone is a potential threat then perhaps WalMart should go out of business rather than take even a small risk. Isn' this type of attitude that sees every customer as a potential threat just a different form of profiling? Why not imploy strip searches, body cavity searches, or at the very least frisking? Come on people --- the Constitution and the Bill of Rights clearly indicate that we have rights.

     

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