Opinion
Column TM

What Your Face Reveals to Retailers

How data is changing the shopping experience.

What Your Face Reveals to Retailers

This column appeared in the April issue of Twin Cities Business magazine.

Walk into a luxury store, and there’s a good chance your face is being scanned to determine your age, sex, race, and mood. Then, if the retailer is just that sophisticated, they’ll pair up your face with a database, pull your name and street address, pair it with their loyalty data, and greet you by name. “Welcome back to Tiffany’s, Mr. Keller. You seem happy today. Are you here for your annual gift?”

This might sound like a scene from a movie or some near-future dystopian episode from Black Mirror. Nope. After attending the National Retail Federation’s annual conference, I can tell you this sort of personal intel is possible today, and it is shaping up to be the debate of this decade. Some questions the industry will have to address: Does a brand need permission to gather personal details from your face? How will this data be used, and to whom will it be available?

For consumers, the question will be: Will wearing masks become our only option to avoid being identified by retailers?

Actually, we already wear masks. If you ask a member of the social sciences, we hide behind them to do our work, live a “normal” life, or merely survive. They show up in the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, and the Facebook posts we put out into the world. We use brands to create a mask, to create the identity we want for ourselves. What happens when brands turn the table on us? These same brands we use to project our ideal identity (and protect our real identity) will know us better than our closest friend or our spouse.

Or will they?

My wife knows my expressions well enough to see when something is bothering me. Most other people wouldn’t see my mood at all, because it requires a certain intimacy and interest to read past the mask. Most brands don’t have that intimacy with me, but now they’ll have the data to fake it.

For example: “Mr. Keller, I see you’re having a bad day. Can I help you find your favorite hand lotion?” Being able to read my emotions and meet me where I am at the moment, the sales associate has a better chance of packaging up a sale with a great memory. (You’re probably wondering whether I really have a favorite hand lotion. That’s personal.)

If you’re wondering how this applies to your business, know that retail pricing at the shelf is going from a little paper placard to digital. These digital displays will allow for dynamic pricing—the same methods airlines use to determine how valuable your seat is compared to the one for your 6-foot-6 companion. Yes, this means a box of Old Dutch chips could cost more or less based on a scan of your face at the shelf. The technology is here and available to implement today.

Let’s imagine this from an optimistic marketing lens. The Old Dutch Rip-L price could vary based on the social status of my potential consumer. The reward for loyalty in all its forms—buying, socializing, social media sharing, and referring—could be individualized, at the shelf. As the idea of getting a deal sets off endorphins in our consumer’s brain, the brand and consumer are rewarded.

Now let’s imagine this from a pessimistic consumer lens. Walking up the aisle at Target, as I turn to look at the price, it drops—perhaps 50 cents off that $4.79 box of Rip-L chips. I’ve given permission to the retailer, or even perhaps the brand, that I’m looking for the deals. But the person next to me happens to be a notable influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers. The price for her is $2.79.

Her status is worth $1.50 more than mine to Old Dutch. (Which she probably won’t even buy; she’s probably more of a Boom Chicka Pop fan.) My relationship with Old Dutch is now quantified and compared with a more famous member of the snack-consuming community. Can someone influential do my grocery shopping next month?

This might be one of those scenarios where just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Yet it only takes one retailer to make the capital investment (which would be significant) before many others would likely follow. We’re already seeing new privacy laws in Europe and California, but technology is advancing faster than politicians can find consensus.

As a marketing community responsible for the relationship between brands and people, we can do something. Here are a few lessons to consider.

  1. Are you gathering data and using it to benefit the retailer, the brand owner, and the consumer? Be objective by spending time looking through the consumer’s lens.
  2. Understand the context in which data turns into knowledge and presents itself to your consumer as possible action-affecting outcomes. For instance, maybe price discovery stays at checkout, a more intimate experience.
  3. Run experiments to learn how the data you gather will change the relationship your brand has with consumers. Is the result a stronger bond or a more discount-driven relationship?

Our data is our own. When you walk into a store to buy something, are you giving implicit permission for the retailer to use your data to provide you a better experience? If brand owners use data to exploit consumers, eventually a competitive marketplace will remove those brands.

Whether you are a product maker, retailer, B2B or B2C brand, start today by being the brand owner that uses knowledge of a customer’s data details to improve the experience you deliver.

Aaron Keller (aaronkeller@capsule.us) is co-founder and managing principal of Capsule (capsule.us), a Minneapolis branding agency. He co-authored The Physics of Brand, physicsofbrand.com.