In Some Stores, the Mannequins Are Watching You

A high-tech mannequin acts as a spy-cam on customers

In Some Stores, the Mannequins Are Watching You
To collect marketing data, a high-tech mannequin acts as a spy-cam on customers (Photograph by Almax)
Photograph by Almax

Store mannequins are meant to catch your eye. Soon, you may catch theirs. Italian mannequin maker Almax is rolling out the EyeSee, a mannequin equipped with technology typically used to identify criminals at airports. The dummies allow retailers to glean demographic data and shopping patterns from customers as they move through stores, much as online merchants do.

Although retailers are loath to discuss the mannequins’ use, Almax Chief Executive Officer Max Catanese says five companies are using a total of “a few dozen” of them in three European countries and the U.S.—and he has outstanding orders for at least that many more. Already, he says, information collected by the €4,000 ($5,130) device has spurred shops to adjust window displays, store layouts, and promotions to keep consumers spending. “It’s spooky,” says Luca Solca, head of luxury goods research at Exane BNP Paribas in London. “You wouldn’t expect a mannequin to be observing you.”

Store mannequins are meant to catch your eye. Soon you may catch theirs. Benetton Group SpA is among fashion brands deploying mannequins equipped with technology used to identify criminals at airports to watch over shoppers in their stores.

The EyeSee looks ordinary enough on the outside, with its slender polystyrene frame, blank face, and improbable poses. But inside, it’s no dummy. A camera in one eye feeds data into demographic-profiling software to determine the age, gender, and race of passersby.

The year-old device is designed for merchants who increasingly use technology to help personalize their offerings. “Any software that can help profile people while keeping their identities anonymous is fantastic,” says Uché Okonkwo, executive director of Paris-based consultant Luxe. It “could really enhance the shopping experience, the product assortment, and help brands better understand their customers.”

While some stores deploy similar technology to watch shoppers from overhead security cameras, Almax contends the EyeSee provides better data because it stands at eye level and invites customer attention. The mannequin led one store to tweak its window displays after revealing that men who shopped in the first two days of a sale spent more than women, according to Almax. Another store found that a third of visitors using one of its doors after 4 p.m. were Asian, prompting it to place Chinese-speaking staff by that entrance. Catanese declined to name clients, citing confidentiality agreements at the 40-year-old mannequin maker.

Seattle-based Nordstrom is not a customer for the EyeSee, and its merchants think profiling 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,” says spokesman Colin Johnson.

U.S. and European Union regulations permit the use of cameras for security purposes, though retailers need to put up signs in their stores warning customers they may be filmed. Watching people solely for commercial gain, on the other hand, could be considered gathering personal data without consent, says Christopher Mesnooh, a partner at 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 Mesnooh. “If you’re walking into a store, where’s the choice?”

CEO Catanese says that since the EyeSee doesn’t store any images, retailers can use it as long as they have a closed-circuit television license. “The retail community is starting to get wise to the opportunity around personalization,” says Lorna Hall, senior editor for retail and events 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.”

To give the EyeSee ears as well as eyes, Almax is testing technology that recognizes words to allow retailers to eavesdrop on what shoppers say about the mannequins’ attire. Catanese says the company also plans to add screens next to the dummies to prompt customers to consider products relevant to their profile, much as cookies and pop-up ads do on the Web.

Too much sophistication could backfire, says Hall, because there’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.”

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