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Retail gets personal with tracking tech at NRF

By Ben Ames | January 19, 2018 | 12:49 PM

Attend a large trade show like the National Retail Federation (NRF)'s annual expo in New York City this past week, and it can be easy to feel lost among the tens of thousands of conventioneers. However, technology suppliers at the show are working hard to make sure that no one in a retail environment stays anonymous for long.

From the moment you check in and don the required name badge at NRF2018, an RFID chip on the back begins to network with the chips attached to the badges of strangers in the crowd around you, one exhibitor reported. Working together, the chips form a network of hive-like links that eventually pass your data to receiving beacons on the ceilings of the vast convention hall. Companies that rented booth space used the information to track the path, location, and lingering time of each individual, he said.

Walk the aisles of the retail show, and you may come across Pepper, a humanoid robot created by SoftBank Robotics America (SBRA) as a virtual sales associate. The wide-eyed, four foot tall android disarms visitors with its childlike features, but inside, Pepper is running powerful computer algorithms that enable it to track individual shoppers, respond to simple questions, and even read their moods to adjust its responses by detecting anger or satisfaction.

Continue to the Intel Corp. booth at NRF, and the giant chipmaker is inviting visitors to explore its vision for the store of the future. Intel demonstrated digital makeup mirrors that use augmented reality to allow shoppers to virtually try on new shades of lipstick or mascara without ever touching their face… then record the virtual makeover and send snapshots to the customer’s phone. Called the MemoMi Memory Makeover, it is now being deployed by department store chain Neiman Marcus.

Even the humble stock shelf got an upgrade with shelf edge displays that use video patterns and digital price tags to offer sales and update prices instantly, according to Joe Jensen, VP and GM of Intel’s Retail Solutions Division. The smart shelves could even get personal, deploying cameras on the underside of shelves to can scan inventory and avoid running out of popular items… or to scan passersby to determine the age and gender of shoppers that pause in front of certain retail displays.

Intel also showcased a crowd-sourced technology that enlists thousands of part-time workers to comb through surveillance videos and catch shoplifters in the act. This SpotCrowd system distributes security camera footage to 13,000 remote viewers who scan each video for suspicious behavior, flagging potential thieves and alerting store managers. If you want to “Fight injustice, catch shoplifters in real-time, and get a paid reward!” just visit the company’s site and sign up.

But retail technology got the most personal of all in an Intel demo of a system called Mobica, which uses facial recognition technology to recognize individual shoppers as they walk into a store, funneling their full names and shopping histories to waiting store associates. To get scanned and profiled while you shop for snacks, just step inside your local Lolli and Pops, a candy store chain which plans to pilot the system by mid-2018.

Facial recognition in retail stores may trigger concerns about invasion of privacy, Jensen admitted. But Lolli and Pops plans to deploy the system only on repeat shoppers who have opted in for its loyalty program. And public acceptance of facial recognition is growing quickly thanks to consumer technologies like Apple’s iPhone X, which uses facial scans instead of passwords for security, Jensen said.



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