The legal and moral implications of supermarket deep customer analytics

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Date: 17 November 2021

A man pays for his shopping using his smartphone

In an increasingly competitive environment, UK supermarkets are understandably reluctant to leave any stone unturned when it comes to securing market share. Those that don't use every tool available, face the risk of going out of business. So, despite some initial reticence, many UK supermarkets are no longer satisfied with simply analysing spending habits using loyalty cards and sales flow data.

Supermarkets are starting to invest heavily in deep-dive customer analytics. A potentially controversial approach, because it involves studying what shoppers do and think in much more detail. That means watching what they are doing closely.

This is something that, understandably, many consumers do not welcome. Some view it as spying. As a result, supermarkets are extremely sensitive to the legal, moral, social, and ethical implications of introducing deeper customer analytics into their physical and online business presence.

Here we look at the forms of customer data gathering and analysis technology that is already in use or is being trialled in the UK. We cover how it can be used and touch upon the legal, ethical, and moral issues that are potentially thrown up by each technology.

Tracking customers through the entire shopping process

For supermarkets, the holy grail is the ability to track a customer's entire shopping process. Ideally, retailers want to be able to do this in-store as well as online. The use of heatmaps, click maps and dwell maps combined with checkout information and customer profile data can already tell supermarkets a great deal.

It is now possible to do something similar in-store. Supermarkets want to know how long a customer's shop took and where the flow of their shopping experience was interrupted. This information can be used to improve store layouts and make the shopping process less time-consuming and stressful. Understandably, supermarkets also want to understand what makes a shopper pause and look ie which promotions catch customers' eyes and convert and which don't.

The Big Brother approach - combining CCTV and facial recognition

The data needed to do all of this can easily be gathered using CCTV then blending that information with facial recognition software. This can now be done in real time.

Using this technology, a supermarket is able to see what time each shopper comes in and whether they pick up a basket or trolley. They can even potentially work out which demographic each customer belongs to.

When the customer leaves the store the fact that they have done so is also logged. Potentially, what they bought can be tied to the trail of other information they left while shopping.

On-shelf cameras

Using shelf cameras, stores can now see the expression on a customer's face and where their eyes look when going down the aisle. There is also the potential for stores to be alerted about a product that is going out of stock, allowing it to be replenished before it runs out completely.

As a springboard for cashier-less stores

Importantly, CCTV and in-aisle, on-shelf cameras are all components needed to run cashier-less stores. Any supermarket not using these technologies is going to struggle to reduce shop floor staffing and will eventually fall behind their competitors who are using this technology already.

The backlash against facial recognition

The problem with all this monitoring technology is that customers hate the idea of their every movement being monitored and analysed. So much so, campaigns are being run to stop its use in the UK (see here). Some stores that are already using this tech have seen protests, regular customers staying away and social media campaigns against the practice.

The legalities of using automatic facial recognition

Technically, it is currently not illegal to use automatic facial recognition in the UK, although campaigners are challenging this. One argument is that firms who state they do not gather biometric data about their customers actually are doing so when using facial recognition.

The other major consideration is, of course, that all that customer data needs to be stored safely to comply with the Data Protection Act. This is creating a logistical challenge for supermarkets as the volume of data sets mushrooms.

The use of CCTV throws up fewer issues. There is already a legal framework in place that covers their use in workplaces. People don't like being filmed, but most begrudgingly accept CCTV is a part of modern life for the purposes of public safety. Where CCTV monitoring is not being used for public safety, there is a greater likelihood of vandalism of shelf edge cameras.

Other sources of less controversial data

Bearing in mind how controversial this in-depth tracking is, many supermarkets are hedging their bets and rolling out the use of other types of data-gathering technology. For example, by tapping into the power of in-store digital screens. Digital signs for supermarkets have been commonplace for around a decade now. Customers are so used to them that their increasing presence is unlikely to raise any eyebrows. Stores are already using their in-store display screens to gather data by tracking sales rates associated with the various promotions they run.

Stores are increasingly deploying screens as an alternative to queuing at customer services. This can enable customers to speak with call centre staff using chatbots, to return goods that they bought online and to speed up other in-store tasks.

Potentially, these screens can be more widely used. Opening up the opportunity for stores to analyse how customers are shopping using the same heatmap-style approach that they would employ if they were tracking the shopping process online.

Interactive in-store displays

The introduction of interactive screens into supermarkets is going to make it even easier to track what shoppers do. Retailers are already experimenting with them to demonstrate products, introduce customers to more ranges and conduct some of the research they would have previously used focus groups for.

Deeper customer analysis is a balancing act

Supermarkets know that if they get it wrong and dig too deeply into their consumers' lives and do it too quickly that many will vote with their feet and shop elsewhere. The same is true for tracking the online shopping habits of consumers purchasing groceries online from a general retailer. 23% of UK consumers are already buying food items from Amazon. So, supermarkets are likely to proceed carefully and are unlikely to advertise how they are gathering customer data and using it. At least not for now.

Copyright 2021. Article was made possible by site supporter Julie Michaels at Content Bee.

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