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Mannequins are displayed in the window of a Benetton store in Santa Monica, Calif., on May 29. Benetton is among retailers using mannequins equipped with technology used to gather data on customers’ shopping habits.

Mannequins are no dummies

Retailers buying high-tech spies to get customer info

Store mannequins are meant to catch your eye. Soon you may catch theirs.

Benetton is among fashion brands deploying mannequins equipped with technology used to identify criminals at airports to watch over shoppers in their stores.

Retailers are introducing the EyeSee, sold by Italian mannequin maker Almax SpA, to glean data on customers much as online merchants are able to do. The $5,000 device has spurred shops to adjust window displays, store layouts and promotions to keep consumers walking in the door and spending.

“It’s spooky,” said Luca Solca, head of luxury goods research at Exane BNP Paribas in London. “You wouldn’t expect a mannequin to be observing you.”

The EyeSee looks ordinary enough on the outside, with its slender polystyrene frame, blank face and improbable pose. Inside, it’s no dummy. A camera embedded in one eye feeds data into facial-recognition software like that used by police. It logs the age, gender, and race of passers-by.

Demand for the device shows how retailers are turning to technology to help personalize their offers as growth slows in the $245 billion luxury goods industry. Bain & Co. predicts the luxury market will expand 5 percent in 2012, less than half last year’s rate.

“Any software that can help profile people while keeping their identities anonymous is fantastic,” said Uché Okonkwo, executive director of consultant Luxe Corp. It “could really enhance the shopping experience, the product assortment, and help brands better understand their customers.”

While some stores deploy similar technology to watch shoppers from overhead security cameras, the EyeSee provides better data because it stands at eye level and invites customer attention, Almax contends.

The mannequin, which went on sale in December and is now being used in three European countries and the United States, has led one outlet to adjust its window displays after revealing that men who shopped in the first two days of a sale spent more than women, according to Almax.

A clothier introduced a children’s line after the dummy showed that kids made up more than half its mid-afternoon traffic, the company says. Another store found that a third of visitors using one of its doors after 4 p.m. were Asian, prompting it to place Chinese-speaking staff by that entrance.

A spokesman for Benetton declined to elaborate on where or why the clothier is using the EyeSee.

Max Catanese, chief executive officer of the 40-year-old mannequin maker, declined to name clients, citing confidentiality agreements. Five companies, including leading fashion brands, are using a total of “a few dozen” of the mannequins with orders for at least that many more, he says.

Burberry and Nordstrom are among retailers that say they aren’t on the list.

Even so, they are helping blur the line between the physical shopping experience and Web retailing by setting up WiFi, iPads and video screens at their outlets to better engage shoppers.

Nordstrom, a U.S. chain of more than 100 department stores, says facial-recognition software may go a step too far.

“It’s a changing landscape but we’re always going to be sensitive about respecting the customer’s boundaries,” spokesman Colin Johnson said.

Others say profiling customers raises legal and ethical issues. U.S. and European Union regulations permit the use of cameras for security purposes, though retailers need to put up signs in their stores warning customers they may be filmed. Watching people solely for commercial gain may break the rules and could be viewed as gathering personal data without consent, says Christopher Mesnooh, a partner at law firm Field Fisher Waterhouse in Paris.

Cotten Timberlake, Chiara Remondini and Tommaso Ebhardt contributed to this story.

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