Will facial recognition tech make for happier customers at Walmart?

Photo: Walmart
Jul 20, 2017

A Walmart patent application filed in 2012 describes a system that would enable the chain to use facial recognition technology at the checkout. The purpose of the tech is to help store personnel determine if a customer is unhappy and, if they are, make contact to address any shopping-related problems

Mention of the technology was included in a Wall Street Journal article on the increased use of automation to replace or augment human activities in stores. The same piece referenced a 2015 Citi Research report that found two-thirds of the retail jobs in the U.S. are at “high risk” of being eliminated by 2030.

Walmart’s patent application abstract describes the goal of using facial recognition technology to improve customer service, not just in the moment, but longer term. “The biometric data of a customer may be correlated to transaction data of the customer in order to detect changes of the purchase habits of the customer due to dissatisfaction. Changes in purchase habits, such as loss of a customer, may be used in combination with the biometric data to establish thresholds of biometric data use to generate customer service actions.”

In the end, Walmart is hoping the technology, if deployed, will enable it to hold onto existing customers, since doing so is much less expensive than acquiring new ones. Management also envisions the technology as a tool it can use to cut staffing costs. In its application, Walmart acknowledges that it can “be very expensive to maintain sufficient staff to provide great customer service. It can also be difficult to establish an appropriate staffing level that will provide proper customer service without excess staffing.”

The use of facial recognition is controversial because of privacy concerns. The technology is being used to reduce shoplifting by some retailers. In some cases, stores catching shoplifters have given them the choice of having their faces scanned or being prosecuted. Images of those scanned go into a database that alerts security personnel when they enter a store. Authorized staff can then tell the shoplifter that they have been banned from the location.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think the facial recognition technology described in Walmart’s patent application will help it achieve the goals of improving customer service in stores while reducing staffing costs? What do you think of the potential for the chain to marry biometric data and transaction data?

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"I'd caution Walmart to consider how the implementation of new technology will impact their relationship with their customers."

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18 Comments on "Will facial recognition tech make for happier customers at Walmart?"

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Mark Ryski

Facial recognition and biometric data is highly sensitive and personal and Walmart is significantly over-reaching to use it for improving customer experience and reducing staff costs. Marrying biometric data to transaction data is only the first step. Once captured, this information can be compared to online activity and online profile information on Facebook/LinkedIn and other data sources. While I do believe there is great potential to use and apply biometric data (especially for security purposes), I am very concerned about how some retailers might use this data under the guise of “improving customer service.” My key concern is in how this information will be used and controlled. Retailers should not be capturing biometric data without explicit opt-in.

Art Suriano
I am a strong supporter of technology and see great value in the convenience and accuracy it provides. However, I am not in favor of this concept. Why are retailers going out of their way claiming they want to provide better service and keep the customer loyal when all along they continue to reduce staff, staff training and wonder why the customer doesn’t give them good marks? Technology is a tool and it can do amazing things. But facial recognition to see if I’m not happy? What if while I’m paying for something at the check out I happen to be thinking about something completely unrelated to my purchase and I frown? Does the facial recognition now flag me as an unhappy customer? What if I happen to recognize a friend and smile while I’m completely frustrated with my in-store experience … am I now a happy customer? I completely understand the technology’s benefits, but the best customer service needs to be delivered by well-trained associates. It’s that simple. Keep investing in technology to replace… Read more »
Kim Garretson

I wonder if Walmart realizes that university advertising schools and agencies have been using similar tech to measure the response to ads in all formats for many years. It would seem this data, especially when it’s available in ad journals, would be of benefit as they look to deploy this system.

Lesley Everett

Facial recognition is taking the customer experience challenge just too far. OK I can see its merits if staff reductions are to be made in a significant way and for shoplifting prevention. However if staff are still in stores and trained well they have the best opportunity to address the challenge of customer loyalty and satisfaction. Being given the skills to detect if a customer is unhappy, dissatisfied or needing assistance and reacting accordingly is a far better way to create the desired service levels. As for the link between biometric data and transaction data; sorry, I can’t see the benefits or possible advantages.

Jasmine Glasheen

I think Walmart’s primary buying demographic is not going to go for the concept of having their faces scanned by biometric technology. The average Walmart shopper is a white female in her early-50s and on average 50-year-old women aren’t into the idea of biometric scanning. I’d caution Walmart to consider how the implementation of new technology will impact their relationship with their customers.

Shep Hyken

Facial recognition is a great service opportunity provided that the employee is trained to take advantage of it. How does facial recognition work at the cash register? Using the customer’s name. Giving the employee information for them to have better rapport-building interactions. There are other ways. This could be especially powerful in an on-the-floor sales situation where the employee can use data from the customer to make good suggestions/recommendations.

Lee Kent

There are many good uses for facial recognition but this is not one of them. Not yet, anyway. I like giving shoplifters the option of a facial scan versus arrest. That might actually cut down on shoplifting. But thinking you can recognize when someone is unhappy and then provide good customer service? That is a stretch. And to do that with less staff? That is even more off base. But that’s just my 2 cents.

Manish Chowdhary

Customer service and customer satisfaction are both important to Walmart as with all retailers, but adding in facial recognition is not going to be the solution to customer service and staffing reduction. The information collected and communicated back to the store personnel can be interpreted in all kinds of ways. The accuracy of the information is not foolproof and what the employee does with that information does not guarantee success.

Customers may not appreciate this technology and many would find it an invasion of privacy. If someone is having a rough day, they may not want to engage with the store personnel. This will probably not reduce staffing costs and could result in additional customer issues.

There can be benefits with regards to data analysis on consumer behaviors, but privacy concerns will continue to be a hurdle.

Gene Detroyer

I don’t think there is a question that it would help. And yes, unknowingly, it may make for a “happier” customer. Everyone loves that “Cheers” moment.

But if customers knew about it, would they find it acceptable? I come down on the side that says it’s creepy.

Adrian Weidmann

I suspect Walmart is leveraging facial recognition technology to address security and loss prevention/theft challenges and presenting it to the public as a vehicle to enhance the customer experience. Theft is a far more immediate and costly problem that significantly outweighs Walmart’s concern for the shopper’s experience. This is followed closely by payroll costs. If Walmart can reduce both through this technology then that’ll be their commercial motivation. Using biometric data as a “physical cookie” will annoy shoppers more than it already does in the online world.

Steve Montgomery

The short answer to the article’s headline is no, it will not make for happier customers if they realize that the facial images have been captured and held in a database.

It is one thing to catch a shoplifter and offer them the opportunity to be scanned or prosecuted. That person had a choice. It is another to capture everyone’s image and link that to their purchases. What does Walmart then do? Alert the clerk who then asks the customer at checkout, why aren’t you buying X or Y from us anymore?

I agree with Mark that without an explicit opt in this type of data should not be captured. Even if someone were to agree to it, my concern would be that many negative things could occur. One thing that often happens is the company changes the terms of agreement (which unfortunately no one ever reads).

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Viewer detection moving to shopper recognition fuels audience-of-one sales and service. When linked with product promotions, such as dynamic signage or shelf-level display, the messaging become more relevant, adding to the customer experience (of which digital experience is the on-location manifestation). Anonymous viewer analytics is advancing toward more finely-tuned demographic profiling while respecting privacy. Retailers and brands that do not yet have a technology path and initial policy framework surrounding facial recognition are at a disadvantage in a competitive market.

Jerry Gelsomino

I’m not confident this will help. Most of the people working at Walmart are not very happy or customer-focused. They need to work on employee morale, then begin locating and treating customers who are unhappy.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Why don’t cashiers ask if the customer found everything they were looking for — not having found it being the major cause of unhappiness? You don’t need facial recognition for that. And give the cashier an action option if the customer says no.

Craig Sundstrom

100% efficient, since anyone identified as “unhappy” will quickly become so. No. I don’t find this a credible idea, and I think it can only detract from more thoughtful efforts.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader, Advisor, & Strategist
5 years 27 days ago

Putting yourself in the customer’s shoes, what customer would expect their checkout process at Walmart to include a facial recognition scan to determine their mood? What would the process be? The associate gets a warning on their POS screen that they have an unhappy customer and then they turn to the shopper and ask them what’s wrong? It doesn’t seem like this would end well for Walmart.

Jesse Davis West
5 years 26 days ago
This article brings up two important applications of face recognition: customer service and security. As for the former, most of us — especially Millennials — have already decided that we are willing to barter some of our privacy in order to have greater convenience. In fact, the moment that we sign up to use credit cards or Facebook, we are compromising some degree of privacy. And when we walk into a mall or casino with hundreds of CCTV video cameras we are surrendering more of our privacy. Lots of us would be happy to opt in to a face recognition program that ensures that we will have better customer service. For this use case, I think that it is important for retail patrons to either opt in or, at the very least, be notified when they are entering a store that biometric surveillance is in use. However, when it comes to using face recognition for security, I think it is inevitable that all major retailers will soon be using this technology. The reason is because… Read more »
Benish Balakrishnan

Face recognition and detection has a wider application which can reduce the gap between the customer and the business. The privacy concern can be considered negligible compared to the benefits both business and customers can gain from. As mentioned, businesses can provide quality service to customers, at the same time they can understand their business and products better.

Along with detection and recognition business can add a factor of analysis for improving business, better marketing plans according to the product popularity etc.

Detection, recognition and analysis has become a golden trio in many business categories. We ourselves has provided solutions in retail, security & surveillance and events. References here.

"I'd caution Walmart to consider how the implementation of new technology will impact their relationship with their customers."

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