Is it paranoia to be concerned that applications of technology to retail have gone too far? When does innovation become intrusion? How do we draw the right lines between supportive technology and Big Brother in the store? This article asks those questions and provides some answers you may not know.
Is it unfair to raise alarms that applications of technology to retail have gone too far?
According to several outlets, including Business Insider, Walmart is pursuing deployment of facial recognition technology at checkout designed to single out less-than-delighted shoppers. Intended to alleviate potential product and/or service deficiencies before they escalate, once identified, according to author Hayley Peterson, managers will dispatch staffers to peeved shoppers at the register in an attempt to mitigate problems. Pardon me? The capture and utilization of my facial expressions, or yours, for that matter, are not Walmart's business.
You want me to do what?
The intersection of technology, retail and intrusion goes further, depending on your perspective. Three Square Market (32M), a technology company located in River Falls, Wisconsin, considers their implantable microchip the next big thing. Beginning in August 2017, they have offered the technology, free of charge, to their employees. According to the Washington Times, "opening doors, logging in to computers, and paying for food in the 32M break room will now be handled by encrypted technology the size of a grain of rice." While employees are not required to opt in, more than half will be lining up to take advantage of the offering.
Walmart and Three Square Market are not the only commercial entities looking to capture and leverage data by way of technology. It's been happening for years, and you were probably entirely unaware.
The 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas hosted a "Technology and Retail" panel where the topic was big data. The central concern, according to Zanub Saeed, who reported on the event for CampaignLive was, "When does retail data-gathering become creepy?" The worry is an issue, both for retailers and consumers.
Julie Fleischer, formerly the managing director of OMD’s retailer practice, suggested that "consumers' perception of intrusiveness depended upon the purpose of collecting the data. It becomes creepy when detailed information is used to benefit media and advertising, [and doesn't] address customers' needs.”
Technology at what cost?
One of the dangers of leveraging technology by American retailers and service businesses is that those applications are automating employees out of some jobs. Kiosks and robots now handle orders, as well as count, process, and secure cash, putting nearly 66 percent of retail jobs in the U.S. at "high risk" of disappearing in less than 20 years, according to a report jointly authored by Citi Research and the Oxford Martin School in 2015. The prevailing logic is to simplify internal processes in order to give staff more time to sell and engage with customers. The reality is often different from prevailing logic.
"Facial recognition and biometric data is highly sensitive and personal, and Walmart is significantly over-reaching to use it for improving customer experience and reducing staff costs," said Mark Ryski, CEO of HeadCount Corporation. "While I do believe there is great potential to use and apply biometric data (especially for security purposes), I am very concerned about how some retailers might use this data under the guise of 'improving customer service.'"
The next evolution
That addresses the involuntary capture of facial recognition data for business purposes. But what about signing up to be a cyborg?
In the case of 32M, the business is claiming that there will be no tracking data of any kind, for now. Currently, the implant consists only of an RFID chip that grants access to doors, computer systems and break room snacks. However, according to 32M's press release reported in the Washington Times: "Eventually, this technology will become standardized, allowing you to use this as your passport, public transit, all purchasing opportunities, etc. ... We see chip technology as the next evolution in payment systems."
New? not really
Think this is all new? That probably means were you unaware that technology has been deployed in retail for the last couple years? As reported by Forbes.com in 2015, Beacons use a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology that allows for two-way communication between devices by triangulating their positions within a set range. The retailer, think Macy's or Lord & Taylors, then sends coupon codes or sales information based on what you see and where you're standing. Hotels, airlines, and sports franchising are already on the bandwagon, in case you're curious.
So, at what point is technology too much? Or, are those of us questioning simply the remnant of a soon-to-be-gone era? Trend watcher Digital Main Street suggests that the future points to more (technology, that is).
In their January report entitled " Retail Trends: 10 Experts Share Their Predictions for 2017," retail futurist and author Melissa Gonzalez says that brick-and-mortar stores will get smarter: "The physical store retail format will continue to evolve into smarter environments. Brands will continue to learn how to truly incorporate technology to create a connected store – not just for the ‘concept of it,’ but with the benefit of the consumer at the heart of design." Further, she adds, "Store associates will be even more empowered with data and a more personalized understanding of customers (what they like, what they have bought, what they have browsed, etc.), and warehouse logistics teams will be more in sync will real-time, in-store demands."
For better or for worse
That means that retail shopping, as it was once known, will soon give way to an omnichannel, digitized and technology-driven experience. Whether that is for better or for worse remains to be seen.