Advertisement
  1. Business

Cameras that guess your age and sex, coming to store shelves

This March 7, 2019, photo shows a smart shelf area at Walgreen's in Chicago. Walgreens, which has more than 8,000 drugstores, installed cooler doors with cameras and sensors at six locations in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Bellevue, Washington. Instead of the usual clear glass doors that allow customers to see inside, there are video screens that display ads along with the cooler?s contents. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)
Published Apr. 23

NEW YORK — Eyeing that can of soda in the supermarket cooler? Or maybe you're craving a pint of ice cream? A camera could be watching you.

But it's not there to see if you're stealing. These cameras want to get to know you and what you're buying.

It's a new technology being trotted out to retailers, where cameras try to guess your age, gender or mood as you walk by. The intent is to use the information to show you targeted real-time ads on in-store video screens.

Companies are pitching retailers to bring the technology into their physical stores as a way to better compete with online rivals like Amazon that are already armed with troves of information on their customers and their buying habits.

With store cameras, you may not even realize you are being watched unless you happen to notice the penny-sized lenses. And that has raised concerns over privacy.

"The creepy factor here is definitely a 10 out of 10," said Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit that researches privacy issues.

The Tampa Bay Times recently launched a digital billboard network called TimesVision that now appears in various retailers across Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. TimesVision screens use similar technology, in which an optical sensor does not record images but logs the number of people who view the screen. Several newspapers across the country also have launched their own digital billboard networks.

At the National Retail Federation trade show in New York earlier this year, a smart shelf on display by Mood Media tried to detect "happiness" or "fear" as people stood in front it — information a store could use to gauge reaction to a product on the shelf or an ad on a screen. Cineplex Digital Media showed off video screens that can be placed in malls or bus stops and try to tell if someone is wearing glasses or sporting a beard, which in turn can be used to sell ads for new frames or razors.

The screens can also be placed at the drive-thru. A minivan pulling into a fast food restaurant, for example, might get an ad for a family-sized meal on the video screen menu.

For now, the cameras are in just a handful of stores.

Kroger, which has 2,800 supermarkets, is testing cameras embedded in a price sign above shelves in two stores in the suburbs outside Cincinnati and Seattle. Video screens attached to the shelves can play ads and show discounts. Kroger said the cameras guess a shopper's age and sex but the information is anonymous and the data is not being stored. If the tests work out well, the company said it could expand it into other locations.

Walgreens, which has more than 8,000 drugstores, installed cooler doors with cameras and sensors at six locations in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Bellevue, Washington. Instead of the usual clear glass doors that allow customers to see inside, there are video screens that display ads along with the cooler's contents.

Above the door handle is a camera that can try to guess ages and track irises to see where you are looking, but Walgreens said those functions are off for now. The company said the cameras are currently being used to sense when someone is in front of the cooler and count the number of shoppers passing by. It declined to say if it will turn on the other functions of the camera.

"All such enhancements will be carefully reviewed and considered in light of any consumer privacy concerns," Walgreens said.

Advocates of the technology say it could benefit shoppers by showing them discounts tailored to them or drawing attention to products that are on sale. But privacy experts warn that even if the information being collected is anonymous, it can still be used in an intrusive way.

For instance, if many people are eyeing a not-so-healthy dessert but not buying it, a store could place it at the checkout line so you see it again and "maybe your willpower breaks down," said Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law and co-director of its Tech Policy Lab.

"Just because a company doesn't know exactly who you are doesn't mean they can't do things that will harm you," Calo said.

The technology could also lead to discriminatory practices, like raising prices when an older person walks in or pushing products based on your perceived mood such as ads for anti-depression medication if the cameras think you look sad, adds Dixon of the World Privacy Forum. .

"We shouldn't be gathering the emotional state of anyone," Dixon said.

At a Walgreens in New York, a sign above a rack of wines said the store is testing cameras and sensors that "do not identify you or store any images." The sign doesn't say where the cameras or sensors are, but it does have a web address for the privacy policy of Cooler Screens, the company that makes the doors.

Calvin Johnson, who was looking for a Snapple, said he visited the store before, but didn't notice the cameras until a reporter pointed them out.

"I don't like that at all," Johnson said.

Another shopper, Ray Ewan, said he noticed the lenses while grabbing a Diet Coke, but isn't concerned since cameras are hard to avoid.

"There's one on each corner," Ewan said.

Not all retailers are keen on adding embedded cameras. Walmart's Sam's Club, which is testing shelves with digital price tags, is cautious about them.

"I think the most important thing you do with tech like that is to make sure people know," said John Furner, Sam's Club's CEO. "You don't want to surprise people on how you use technology or data."

Jon Reily, vice president of commerce strategy at consultancy Publicis.Sapient, said retailers risk offending customers who may be shown ads that are aimed at a different gender or age group. Nonetheless, he expects the embedded cameras to be widely used in the next four years as the technology gets more accurate, costs less and shoppers become used to it.

For now, he said, "we are still on the creepy side of the scale."

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. A company called Flock Safety is selling automatic license plate readers to neighborhood associations to cut down on crime, and Tampa neighborhood Paddock Oaks is one of their customers. Pictured is a Flock camera on Paddock Oaks Dr. | [Luis Santana | Times] LUIS SANTANA  |  Times
    Atlanta-based Flock Safety has provided 14 area communities with high-speed, high-definition cameras for surveillance.
  2. An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft approaches Miami International Airport for landing in March. Bloomberg
    The 60-year-old veteran airline employee told investigators he was upset that union contract negotiations had stalled.
  3. Lilly Beth Rodriguez, left, Laura Robertson and Linda Lamont work on a Habitat for Humanity house in north Pasco. [Times (2013)]
    The increase is expected to happen in the first half of next year. CEO hopes other nonprofits follow suit.
  4. The number of single-family homes sold in the Tampa Bay area during August rose 2.8 percent when compared with the same month last year, according to a monthly report from Florida Realtors. (Times file photo)
    The midpoint price in the bay area rose to $250,000, which is still lower than the state and national median prices.
  5. The Aldi store located on 1551 34th St N, St. Petersburg, Florida in 2018, features its updated layout. JONES, OCTAVIO   |  Tampa Bay Times
    The store will re-open after renovations on Thursday, Sept. 26
  6. Jessica LaBouve, a penetration tester for cybersecurity company A-LIGN, poses for a portrait in the A-LIGN office on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019 in Tampa. Companies hire A-LIGN to figure out where their digital security weak spots are, and LaBouve is one of the "benevolent hackers" that finds them. ALLIE GOULDING  |  Times
    Jessica LaBouve of A-LIGN works with companies to make their applications and platforms more secure.
  7. Stephen A. Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group, speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year. MARKUS SCHREIBER  |  AP
    The billionaire also talks trade with China in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
  8. The economies of Canada and Florida go together like, well, palm fronds and maple leaves, as seen outside the Sweetwater RV Resort in Zephyrhills. (Times file photo) KATE CALDWELL  |  Tampa Bay Times
    To qualify under the proposed Canadian Snowbirds Act, visitors would have to be older than 50 and would have to own or rent a home here.
  9. Tampa investor and owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning Jeff Vinik, right, speaks about his investments in the video game industry at the eSports Summit Wednesday in Tampa as Matt Samost, Vice President of New Ventures for Tampa Bay Sports and Entertainment looks on. LUIS SANTANA   |   TIMES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    A summit at USF brought together major players and explored the possibility of an esports arena.
  10. Neeld-Gordon Garden Center, open at this location since 1925, is closing on Sept. 28. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    The development of Pinellas County and the arrival of the big box stores helped hasten the store’s demise.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement