x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Big plastic brother is watching you

Fashion brands are employing smart mannequins that can observe shoppers in stores. And while the idea of life-sized dolls watching your every move might be a little unsettling, retailers look set to embrace the development as they chase sales.

Mannequins are meant to catch the eye of shoppers, but the EyeSee, a smart dummy that can glean data on customers may soon be watching you. Matt Dunham / AP Photo
Mannequins are meant to catch the eye of shoppers, but the EyeSee, a smart dummy that can glean data on customers may soon be watching you. Matt Dunham / AP Photo

In 2005, TV's Dr Who and his assistant Rose Tyler battled an invasion of terrifying automated store mannequins intent on destroying the human race.

That was science fiction. But, if the next time you go shopping for a luxury shirt, handbag or pair of shoes, you get the feeling you are being watched, it may not be your imagination playing tricks. Mannequins are meant to catch your eye - soon you may catch theirs, too.

Fashion brands are deploying shop dummies that are in fact very "smart". These mannequins, using technology used to identify criminals at airports, can see, allowing them to keep an eye on shoppers in their stores.

"It's spooky," says Luca Solca, the head of luxury goods research at Exane BNP Paribas in London. "You wouldn't expect a mannequin to be observing you."

Retailers are introducing the EyeSee, sold by the Italian mannequin maker Almax, to glean data on customers - much as online merchants are able to do and, while the idea of being secretly observed by a life-size plastic doll may seem a little chilling, some industry experts like the mannequins' prospects.

"Any software that can help profile people while keeping their identities anonymous is fantastic," says Uché Okonkwo, the executive director of the consultant Luxe. It "could really enhance the shopping experience, the product assortment, and help brands better understand their customers".

Five companies are using a total of "a few dozen" of the mannequins with orders for many more, says Max Catanese, the Almax chief executive.

The €4,000 (Dh19,046) device has spurred shops to adjust window displays, store layouts and promotions to keep consumers walking in the door and spending.

The EyeSee looks ordinary enough on the outside, with its slender polystyrene frame and its blank face. Inside, though, a camera embedded in one eye feeds data into facial-recognition software like that used by police forces.

It logs the age, gender, and race of passers-by.

Demand for the device shows how retailers are turning to technology to help to personalise their offers as growth slows in the multibillion luxury goods industry, which Bain & Co predicts will expand 5 per cent this year, less than half last year's rate.

While some stores deploy similar technology to watch shoppers from overhead security cameras, the EyeSee provides better data because it stands at eye level and invites customer attention, Almax contends.

The mannequin is now being used in three European countries and the United States and has led one outlet to adjust its window displays after revealing that men who shopped in the first two days of a sale spent more than women, according to Almax.

A clothier introduced a children's line after the dummy showed that youngsters made up more than half its midafternoon traffic, the company adds. Another store found that a third of visitors using one of its doors after 4pm were Asian, prompting it to place Chinese-speaking staff by that entrance.

Mr Catanese declined to name clients, citing confidentiality agreements at the 40-year-old mannequin maker.

Benetton says it is not using EyeSee or comparable technology. The company says it does buy some mannequins without the technology from Almax.

The luxury brand Burberry and the retailer Nordstrom are among those that also say they are not on the Almax client list. Even so, they are helping to blur the line between the physical shopping experience and Web retailing by setting up Wi-Fi, iPads and video screens at their outlets to better engage shoppers.

Nordstrom, a US chain of more than 100 department stores, says facial-recognition software may go a step too far.

"It's a changing landscape but we're always going to be sensitive about respecting the customer's boundaries," said spokesman Colin Johnson.

Others say profiling customers raises legal and ethical issues. US and European Union regulations permit the use of cameras for security purposes, although retailers need to put up signs in their stores warning customers they may be filmed. Watching people solely for commercial gain may break the rules and could be viewed as gathering personal data without consent, says Christopher Mesnooh, a partner at the law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse in Paris.

"If you go on Facebook, before you start the registration process, you can see exactly what information they are going to collect and what they're going to do with it," says Mr Mesnooh. "If you're walking into a store, where's the choice?"

So far, Almax has not faced obstacles to selling the dummy, Mr Catanese says. Since the EyeSee does not store any images, retailers can use it as long as they have a closed-circuit television licence, he says.

Some clients have asked for the EyeSee to be rigged to recognise employees so they do not muddy the picture of customer behaviour. In those cases, workers have to agree to be filmed, says Mr Catanese. That option may be extended to shoppers, where loyal spenders would be invited to opt in return for rewards, he adds.

"The retail community is starting to get wise to the opportunity around personalisation," says Lorna Hall, the retail editor at fashion forecaster WGSN. "The golden ticket is getting to the point where they've got my details, they know what I bought last time I came in."

And it may be that the humble shop dummy may soon be able to eavesdrop on your conversations as well as look you up and down. Almax is testing technology that recognises words to allow retailers to hear what shoppers say about the mannequin's attire.

Mr Catanese says the company also plans to add screens next to the dummies to prompt customers about products relevant to their profile, much like cookies and pop-up ads on a website.

Too much sophistication could backfire, says Ms Hall, because it's a fine line between technology that helps and technology that irks.

A promotional prompt or a reminder about where to find women's shoes "could become a digital version of a very pushy sales assistant" she says. "And we all know how we feel about those."

Those who recall the Doctor and Rose fleeing from their animated would-be assassins in 2005 may feel somewhat different.

business@thenational

* with Bloomberg News