Bricks and Mortar Retailers Are Using IoT and AI to Win Against Online Retailers

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Bricks and Mortar Retailers Are Using IoT and AI to Win Against Online Retailers

Want to learn more about IoT and AI are impacting the future of bricks and mortar stores? Check out this post on the fight against online retailers.

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With the popularity of online shopping, it's clear that bricks and mortar retail is up for a challenge. Competing against the convenience of being able to shop online anywhere in the world and have your goods delivered to your home within hours is a pressing fight, as malls and shopping centers are closing and people prefer shopping from the comfort of their own home. In response, retailers are looking at the home so they can gain better insights into their customers and maintain loyalty. 

It was revealed this week that Walmart filed for a patent called “System and Method For a Biometric Feedback Cart Handle.” This was a patent for a cart handle embedded with sensors that allow the company to monitor a customer's shopping experience and signal a store associate that they may need help. The abstract details:

"Systems, methods, and computer-readable storage media for alerting store associates that a customer may need assistance based on biometric data received from the customer via a shopping cart handle. For example, a server may receive, in near-real-time, baseline biometric data generated at a shopping cart handle, the baseline biometric data being associated with a user of the shopping cart. The server may then receive additional biometric data generated at the shopping cart handle and perform an analysis of both the baseline biometric data and the additional biometric data. By this analysis, the server can determine that a check on the user should occur, and can transmit a notification to at least one store associate to perform the check on the user."

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Essentially, the shopping cart will measure a shopper's heart rate, temperature, speed, and the amount of force they apply to the handle as they walk around a store. The cart would first measure "baseline" biometric data and then compare data at different points in a shopping visit to this baseline. The data would then be relayed back to a central server, and if shopper unsatisfaction is indicated, the central server would send an alert to a shop assistant to go and help the customer.

Walmart Is Heavily Investing in Retail, Health, and Blockchain Tech

It's not Walmart's foray into smart retail tech. Last month, it was announced that after years of research, Walmart would mandate the use of blockchain technology by a swath of its U.S. suppliers, marking it as one of its biggest commercial uses. In June this year, Walmart was awarded a patent to protect a method that allows a patient’s electronic health records to be obtained from a blockchain database, even if they are unable to communicate. Doing so would require verification from two different keys: a public key stored in a wearable (presumably wrist-worn) that would be scanned by emergency responders via RFID and a private key that is obtained by scanning a biometric signature from the patient.

While there's no evidence that the ever-growing Walmart foray into (presumably retail) health tech will result in a shopping cart offering health analysis and diagnosis, the use of biometrics in retail is a controversial concept in many respects. Does entering the show give implicit consent to have your data recorded by the shopping trolley? Can a customer shop without using the trolley (no doubt there are plans to integrate some kind of tech into the handheld shopping baskets also)? While the patent application says that data won’t be stored or linked to the customer’s identity, it's easy to imagine this becoming common practice. 

Opt-In or Opt-Out Monitoring?

The use of retail spaces monitoring our emotions and biometrics is nothing new. From the early days, we've seen attempts to change our mood (and presumably purchase more) through the use of particular color decor, lighting, and music. Last year saw controversy over the use electronic billboards in restaurants and shopping precincts that utilize advanced facial recognition techniques to not only provide personalized advertisements but also measure and record the consumer and their response. This would enable retailers to provide targeted marketing and services.

In Oslo, the restaurant Peppe’s Pizza had its usage of such billboards exposed due to a crashed digital advertisement that revealed the coding behind its facial recognition system. The billboard includes a camera and facial recognition software that can register gender, whether the watcher is young or an adult, facial expression, whether they wear glasses. and duration of time spent at the billboard.

In response, Dublin-based designer Youssef Sarhan did a little digging in his home time of Dublin and discovered similar billboards in operation. His thoughts reflect those of many:

“Your attention (and the meta-data associated with it) is being relayed to advertisers without your permission or awareness, and there is no way to opt–out. This is the crux of the problem. There’s no transparency, there is no obvious notice, and there’s no way to opt–out. This is an erosion of our privacy. I feel this is unacceptable.”

It will be interesting to see what customers actually gain in return for giving up their biometric data. Will Walmart tie the data to some kind of in-store card or membership? Will people trade data for discounts? Will the next step be monitoring what you, personally, buy in-store? Will they partner with health insurers with the use of their biometric wearable health device? Online retailers have been reaping the benefits of rich data provided by online consumers, digital advertising and other metrics — it's not unsurprising to see their bricks and mortar contemporaries follow suit.

ai, blockchain, connected devices, facial recognition, iot, retail, sensors, smart devices, walmart, wearables

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