Tesco in the UK recently reported that they were installing hundreds of high-tech screens to scan the faces of customers visiting its petrol stations.
Its aim was to understand and target people with specific messages. Using face-sensory technology, the implication is that Tesco can now search Facebook and tailor messages to consumers.
It begs the question: is this kind of observation clever or is it invasive?
Probably a bit of both, but how far can brands go before crossing an ethical line? When does observation become invasion – or even stalking? And where is there the grey area between fact and fiction?
Tesco is arguably one of the most advanced retailers in the world and it has a real grasp on understanding its customers. The big data opportunity is one that it has grabbed and through its Tesco Club Card, has a wealth of transactional data to personalise messaging and even profile stores.
There is a danger that we mix fact with fiction in terms of observing shoppers. It’s surely done for our own good; to ‘help them to help us’ and make shopping easier and more tailored. I can hear the privacy lobbyists saying ‘it’s just another sneaky way to make us buy something’, but that is retail; it is the art of selling goods and services, and those that do it best are the most successful.
Watching behaviour or targeting individuals is where issues arise.
The challenge and desired outcome is to understand behaviour when interacting with a category or product: is it poor signage, poor location, high price, range, packaging, store layout, densely populated displays – or even colour and music? There are so many variables.
Media fragmentation has also meant that brands and retailers are constantly searching for the most effective way to connect and communicate, but isolating one influence from another is difficult.
Despite the advances in technology now, Tesco’s actions are nothing new.
A few years back in the UK, I was working with one of the major banks to understand how it could more effectively sell by applying some of the conventional retail rules to its branches.
With a regular flow of advocates (only 1% of non-bank customers visit another bank), we undertook a number of observational studies in the bank lounge to understand what people do, where they stand, what they see and how much time they spend there. We unearthed two powerful findings that challenged a fundamental convention of retail signage.
On exiting the branch (and without turning around to look), not one of the 158 people we interviewed could tell us which product was being featured in store at POS. Even the staff were unsure. The material, which was well branded did not stand out and merged in to the d√©cor. ‘Rogue’ colours were subsequently applied to the key sales POS messages to stand out.
We came to the conclusion that POS doesn’t sell products in a bank – staff do. So all POS from then on was aimed at staff, with a simple product message that was either better, cheaper or different, which allowed the staff to open dialogue with a simple but defining point of difference – making it easier to sell. POS was still an important sales tool, but as a prompt for staff not customers.
At Sainsbury’s, there was another classic example of how understanding customers can have a powerful impact.
Everybody loves the smell of freshly baked bread, but the bakery was always located at the far corner from the entrance to store. By feeding the wonderfully enticing smell of freshly baked bread through the ducting to the entrance, we literally pulled people through the store by their nose, encouraging them to walk each aisle on the way to the source of the smell – and purchase.
There is a fine balance between observation and invasion, but retailers are motivated by the sale which is driven by the desire to understand the shopper.
Instinctively, a shopper will feel tricked if targeted ‘illegitimately’ – and trickery, I would suggest, does not form part of any brand’s recruitment or retention strategy.
However, did I feel tricked that I bought a bag of donuts after filling my lungs with the great smell of fresh bread? Maybe a little, but I soon got over it.
Simon Tebbutt is head of shopper & retail strategy at ApolloNation.