Mannequins keeping an eye on shoppers

Store mannequins are meant to catch your eye. Soon you may catch theirs.




The latest tool in fighting retail thieves and tracking shopping habits is seeing-eye mannequins.

Fashion brands are deploying mannequins equipped with technology used to identify criminals at airports to watch over shoppers in their stores. Retailers are introducing the EyeSee, sold by Italian mannequin maker Almax SpA, to glean data on customers.

Five companies are using a total of “a few dozen” of the mannequins with orders for at least that many more, Almax CEO, Max Catanese, said.

The €4,000 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, with its slender polystyrene frame, blank face, and improbable pose. Inside, it’s no dummy though. A camera embedded in one eye feeds data into facial-recognition software like that used by police. It logs the age, gender, and race of passers-by.

Demand for the device shows how retailers are turning to technology to help personalise their offers as growth slows in the luxury goods industry. &

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.

The mannequin, which is now being used in three European countries and the US, 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, says Almax.

Some say profiling customers raises legal and ethical issues. EU and US regulations permit the use of cameras for security purposes, though retailers need to put up signs 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 Paris-based law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse.

“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. If you’re walking into a store, where’s the choice?”

Some clients have asked for the EyeSee to be rigged to recognise staff so they don’t muddy the picture of customer behaviour. That option may be extended to loyal shoppers, who would be invited to opt-in in return for rewards.

Almax is also testing technology that recognises words to allow retailers eavesdrop on what shoppers say about the mannequin’s attire.

Catanese says Almax also plans to add screens next to the dummies to prompt customers about products. Too much sophistication could backfire, says Lorna Hall, retail editor at fashion forecaster WGSN, as it’s a fine line between technology that helps and technology that irks.

A reminder about where to find women’s shoes “could become a digital version of a very pushy sales assistant”, she said. “And we all know how we feel about those.”

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