Brick-and-mortar retailers are on a constant quest to compete with ever-growing e-commerce outlets. Some strategies for engaging consumers are unconventional, but others seem like downright science fiction. In its latest bid to keep its customers happy, Walmart recently filed a patent application for video technology that would monitor customers’ facial expressions to identify frustrated or unhappy customers and dispatch employees to help.
According to the application, a “video feed of a camera viewing a [point-of-sale] queue” would be “analyzed to identify customers and measure customer biometric data.” That data would then be used to “generate customer service actions such as alerting a representative or calling in additional staff if the data indicates customer dissatisfaction.” The system is also designed to “learn” based on the data it collects – purchase data for a particular customer will be correlated with biometric data to determine changes in purchase habits of dissatisfied customers, and that information will be used to inform future customer service responses and strategies.
This isn’t the first time the retail giant has proposed using futuristic technology. In 2015, Walmart experimented with similar facial recognition aimed at potentially identify shoplifters. That software functioned slightly differently, though ― rather than reading expressions, it was designed to match the faces captured by the in-store video cameras with a database of prior offenders. The software can then transmit relevant information about the suspected customer to a store employee’s computer or phone. Walmart scrapped the program after only a few months, citing a poor return-on-investment.
Of course, as retailers employ facial recognition technology, it is important to be aware of the privacy implications. Some in the industry feel that using facial recognition technology on unsuspecting customers to improve their experience or to increase employee efficiency is overstepping boundaries. And storing any customer images may open retailers up to civil lawsuits, like in the case of a lawsuit against Facebook for automatically storing users’ facial recognition profiles. Retailers employing these types of technological advances should consider these legal implications and proceed with caution.