Who’s That Girl? Facial Recognition in Retail


In 1998, Enemy of the State mesmerized and terrified audiences with an intricate web of surveillance cameras. Movie-goers left the theatre with chill bumps, saying, “That could never happen in real life, could it?”

Fast forward 2018, we look at our mobile phone to unlock it with our face.

What is facial recognition software?

Historically sold as a security tool, facial recognition captures security footage and compares the faces of in-store shoppers to a database of known criminals and shoplifters. This allows retailers to ramp up surveillance coverage in certain areas of the store or direct security officers to certain points as a deterrent for would-be offenders.

What’s the problem with that?

Currently, there is no legislation surrounding the type of data captured and used. Illinois is the only state that bans the capture of biometric data and subsequent tracking. The question then becomes, “At what point does the capture and sharing of that data infringe on personal privacy?”

The other challenge with this type of surveillance is the reliability of the criminal database.  

“The software often comes with a database of criminals or known shoplifters, which comes from combining the shoplifter registries of participating stores,” said Clare Garvie, who studies the technology and its privacy implications at Georgetown Law. “It’s unclear exactly what it takes to be put in these databases, let alone how to get your name removed.”

After learning of Madison Square Garden’s use of facial recognition, Ritchie Torres, a New York City Councilman, introduced a bill in October to require businesses to start telling the public if they’re using facial recognition software, how long they’re storing the information and with whom they’re sharing the data.

Sooooo . . . facial recognition is bad?

Not for retailers! In the store of the future, retailers can bring the benefits of online shopping to the in-store experience with the personalization capabilities of facial recognition.

For example, when a customer enters your showroom, a specially designed kiosk outfitted with cameras and facial recognition software can tap into a client’s purchase history and make a new recommendation that may resonate with the shopper. It could also play pieces of content that they might find appealing. For example, if your client registry identifies this customer as a mid-century modern enthusiast, a video with tips for decorating in mid-century modern style may begin.

This type of technology bridges the gap and moves facial recognition needle from protection to personalization.  

What else can it do?  

Eventually facial recognition may eliminate swiping a credit card for payment – using key facial features instead.

Facial recognition is already being used in lieu of heat tracking to determine store flow, as well as track facial expressions and reactions. Walmart currently uses facial recognition systems at the register to determine customer pain points and levels of satisfaction – since the cameras can detect the difference between a smile and a pained expression.

Retailers who utilize this type of information can create a smoother, more enjoyable shopping experience.

Should I be scared?

The jury’s still out. When used in the proper context, facial recognition is a boon for retail. After all, it allows store owners and managers to create the type of personalized shopping recommendation experience that people get when shopping online.  

In the personal vector, the fear factor lies largely in the application of databases and their ability to effectively delineate between people who look dangerously similar.

So, the next time someone says, “You just look so familiar!” you may have a markedly different reaction than, “Oh you know . . . I just have that kind of face.”