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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Comments on “Wal-Mart Looking To Take Spying On Shoppers To The Next Level”

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DSM says:

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.

Michael Vilain (profile) says:

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.

Mike (profile) says:

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…

Tony says:

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.

Sam says:

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.

Yo ho ho... says:

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…

James Stevens says:

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.”

Cyryl says:

What you're failing to see is...


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.

SyntaxC4 says:

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.

Charlie says:

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.

Glurbie says:

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:

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.

Anonymous of Course says:

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.

leroy says:

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.


Noone, Bill says:

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

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.

wireless camera (user link) says:

Wireless cameras


Professional wireless 5″ DVR system. Actually a true pocket video monitoring workstation.

The video recording SV-Cam kit is a real miniature video surveillance system, as well as a complete and professional device of that kind. Thanks to its micro wireless camera, working on 5.8 Ghz frequency, and a useful 16-channel DVR, the SV-Cam provides high-resolution images even from 100 meters away.

The micro camera wireless works at very low brightness, ensuring the capture of clear images even in prohibitive light conditions. The 5″ pocket-size monitor with a wireless antenna allows you to comfortably view and record videos without forcing the use of more unwieldy professional solutions.

You can hide the tiny camera in the car or small household objects* (wall clocks, alarm clocks, ornaments etc.), or wear it to bring it with you everywhere, ready to send back clear images of your target. In addition, thanks to its included microSD, you will not lose a single frame of your video recordings anymore.


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