Any excuse to buy some new shoes…

Lauren Sullivan in Advertising

in Advertising

I have a confession to make.  When it comes to footwear, I’m a cheapskate.  I’d say that, on average, a pair of my shoes costs around £20. Max.  (If it wasn’t for one very expensive and ill thought out pair of high-tops (I live in Croydon), it would probably be more like £10.)

As such, you can only imagine my horror and embarrassment when I read that my choice of footwear could increasingly be used by my favourite shops, hairdressers and even Disney World to form judgments about me.  Time for a shopping spree methinks….

The battle for customers

We’re all aware of the challenges that “bricks and mortar” businesses face in using quantitative analytics to improve their businesses.  Those operating online have easy access to a wealth of information about the characteristics and habits of visitors to their websites.  In the “real world” however (where cookies are just something you eat to keep your energy levels up during the January sales) businesses are still finding ways to capture and utilise data about their customers in the hopes of keeping up with their online competitors.

So what are the options?

What’s your face saying?

Facial recognition is one of the front-runners that businesses are increasingly using to drive up sales, improve customer experience and enhance customer loyalty.

By using your face to determine your gender and age, “smart billboards” can change the advert that you see.  Tracking your eye and facial movements allows retailers to ascertain which elements of a display receive the most attention and whether customers actually like it.  And in China, KFC is now using facial recognition to predict what its customers will want to order and to make appropriate recommendations (it is a truth universally acknowledged that a 20 year old, happy, male must be in want of a Chicken Zinger Tower Burger).

And facial recognition seems to be working.  A recent article in the Economist referred to a French bookstore chain that recently used facial recognition technology to: “scrutinises shoppers’ movements and facial expressions for surprise, dissatisfaction, confusion or hesitation. When a shopper walked to the end of an aisle only to return with a frown to a bookshelf, the software discreetly messaged clerks, who went to help. Sales rose by a tenth.”

But even if it does work, are customers happy with this approach?

Privacy concerns

54% of consumers questioned by RichRelevance in a survey conducted in June 2017 said that in-store facial recognition technology that relays shoppers’ preferences to staff was “creepy.”  Presumably this has a lot to do with privacy.  In Europe, respect for private and family life is a fundamental human right and the collection and use of “personal data” is heavily regulated.

Facial recognition seems at odds with this.  In most cases, we won’t even know if our favourite shop or restaurant is using this technology – let alone be asked whether we’re OK with it.  When we shop online we are asked to consent to various types of tracking, monitoring and targeting and have easy access to a privacy policy.  Even though most of us will never read the information, there is a degree of transparency and choice when we use a website (or at least the illusion of it).

So how can businesses seeking to learn more about their customers address this?

Stores of the future

One option is for them to be more open about what they’re doing.

In Spring of this year Farfetch, the high-end online fashion retailer, announced its “Store of the Future” platform which aims to link the online and offline worlds.  Customers who enter a store and who have downloaded the Farfetch app will have the option to “opt-in” to data sharing via a universal log-in.  Where a shoper does this, the sales assistants will be notified and will be able to access their preferences, likes, shopping habits etc.

José Neves, Farfetch’s Founder, Co-Chairman & CEO explains that the store aims to give: “visibility to retailers on what is happening in the store. It’s the offline cookie that closes the loop, between a great online presence and a complete omni-channel offering and, finally in-store technology which augments the experience of customers in store and overall.

The information surrounding the launch also refers to “emotion-scanning software.”  Although it isn’t entirely clear what this will entail, customers will have a choice and if they wish to shop anonymously they’re free to do so.

But what if shoppers don’t opt in such that you can’t collect their data?  Is there another alternative?

Let your feet do the talking

Many businesses are now looking to continue collecting data but to a lesser degree and in a less invasive manner.

Last Summer, Disney filed a patent for an invention that “relates generally to customizing interactions for guests of a theme park using foot recognition.”  The entertainment giant explains that “current methods for acquiring guest information and subsequently matching a particular guest with the acquired guest information are limited and rather invasive methods such as retinal and fingerprint identification methods.

So do our shoes really hold the answer?

UK based Hoxton Analytics thinks so.  It aims to offer rich customer insights without invading privacy by installing cameras at ground level and recording peoples’ feet.  Their technology tracks outside traffic, in-store occupancy, dwell times, group size, demographic details and brand recognition in order to provide real-time data which can be used to, for example, determine the best opening hours and optimise conversion.  Importantly this is all done without gathering any personal information – as their website explains, “We have designed our service with customer privacy at heart.”

This avoids issues with leaked databases of sensitive information, or with disgruntled customers uncovering your hidden and invasive monitoring techniques (ahem, Peppe’s Pizza in Norway).


Despite being someone whose day job is to “make sure the data is protected!” I can’t say I’m overly concerned about safeguarding my privacy.  If a store wants to offer me money off the dress I’ve stared at during every lunch break this week then I’m OK with that.  If a restaurant thinks I look like someone who might prefer a pizza to a salad, I won’t be too offended.

But if you’re a business, particularly one whose brand relies heavily on trust and openness, then I can see the value in moving away from secretive monitoring and towards something that is less intrusive and arguably more proportionate (do businesses really need the vast amounts of data they collect?).  And in any case – and perhaps most importantly – who I am to deny anyone the excuse of buying a brand new pair of high-tops…

Any excuse to buy some new shoes… was last modified: October 19th, 2017 by Lauren Sullivan